NSA-Approved Propaganda: ’60 Minutes’ & the Revolving Door Journalism of John Miller

John Miller being interviewed on CSPAN when he was FBI Assistant Director

More than six months after stories on documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began to appear, the NSA finally determined all the statements denying what had revealed or intended to clarify what the agency believed to be true and not true had not had the effect desired. Journalists continue to publish stories on the NSA, its capabilities, what information from Americans is being collected and how unchecked the agency’s powers happen to be. What has been revealed has had an impact on the public that has changed the way many Americans view the NSA. The agency may, as a result, have some of its surveillance powers curtailed.

It was time to call up John Miller of CBS’s “60 Minutes” program. As was stated in the two-part segment on the NSA, “Gen. Alexander agreed to talk to us because he believes the NSA has not told its story well.” So, the agency called up Miller to help “set the record straight” i.e. assist the NSA with its public relations issues.

Nobody quite represents the “revolving door” between journalism and government like Miller. “Full disclosure, I once worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence [ODNI] where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates,” he said before the segment began.

More disclosure: Miller served as spokesperson for the New York Police Department in 1994. The “journalism bug bit him again,” according to Men’s Journal, so he left the NYPD and worked a network job for ABC News. He interviewed Osama bin Laden for ABC News in 1998 before going to work for the Los Angeles Police Department in 2003. He helped “establish the department’s counter-terrorism and criminal-intelligence bureau.” He also worked on the development of a “threat assessment system” called “Archangel” to protect “critical assets” in Los Angeles from terrorism.

He moved on to work as a public affairs officer for the FBI in 2005. Then, he worked for ODNI. When he grew tired of the bureaucracy at ODNI, he was hired by CBS as a senior correspondent in 2011.

Miller has engaged in some of the same kind of work as Alexander. He is unlikely to challenge those he interviews because they are the exact people he may want to work with after he gets tired of journalism again. This makes him someone with a huge glaring conflict of interest, but, for CBS News, that conflict of interest is a plus, and, when he produces segments for news programs like “60 Minutes,” the show does not see what he produces as propaganda because they value access more than investigative reporting that might actually hold officials accountable.

“It is often said NSA stands for ‘never say anything,’ but tonight the agency breaks with that tradition to address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of Americans,” Miller declared before the beginning of the two-part segment.

Alexander has been coming before Senate and House committees for months now to “break with tradition.” Some congressmen and senators have chosen to ask serious questions. Some have chosen to ask “serious questions.” Programs like “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos have had Alexander on to ask “serious questions.” He spread fear that terrorists were changing tactics because of stories on documents from Snowden in an interview with NBC News’ Pete Williams at the Aspen Institute. “60 Minutes” wasn’t blazing new ground by asking him questions that he would be allowed to unequivocally deny without challenge.

Only a small fraction of the segment actually dealt with this topic of “whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of Americans.” The majority of the segment was a commercial for the NSA with some smears against Snowden and good old fashioned fear of cyber attacks and terrorism mixed in as well.

Miller asked, “There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?” And Alexander answered, “No, that’s not true. NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order. Today, we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.”

This perception out there has been mostly created by people who are defending what the NSA does—Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Representative Mike Rogers, chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. They say it is not true that the NSA is collecting the content of phone calls, and then people think that the media is talking about collecting content of phone calls and that is false. But, from the beginning, news reports have pointed out that the NSA says it only collects metadata of phone calls in bulk, not content, just like the NSA wants media to do.

Alexander told Miller, “There’s no reason that we would listen to the phone calls of Americans. There’s no intelligence value in that. There’s no reason that we’d want to read their email. There is no intelligence value in that.” However, the reason why NSA would want to read Americans’ email and listen to phone calls of Americans is the same reason why the NSA insists on having the power to collect phone records in bulk: “peace of mind.”

This is what Clapper says in hearings now, that the success of the bulk phone records surveillance program should be judged by the “peace of mind” metric in addition to how much it has actually thwarted terrorism. Only one to two plots in the history of the program under the PATRIOT Act have been disrupted because of this surveillance so Clapper says, in order to save it, that having phone records from all Americans helps him sleep at night knowing there is nothing the NSA is missing. So, that’s the “intelligence value.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the co-sponsor of legislation that would discontinue the bulk phone records surveillance program, has said collecting metadata might be considered by Americans as the “most intrusive” way of conducting surveillance, not the “least intrusive way” as Alexander has repeatedly suggested. (Leahy’s bill and other numerous pieces of legislation to rein in the NSA went entirely unmentioned during the program.)

Screen shot from “60 Minutes” program last night when analyst was demonstrating “call chaining”

An NSA analyst sat down with Miller to demonstrate for Americans how the agency searches foreign intelligence data through a search process called “call chaining.” If one looked at the screen as he selected what he could search for, they would have seen that he was selecting boxes that included “EO12333” data. That means the search was not happening under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is supposed to check the authority of the NSA and prevent civil liberties violations. The search was happening under an executive order and, according to Sen. Feinstein, up until at least August the Senate intelligence committee had not been receiving reports on this surveillance so senators had little to no idea what NSA was doing.

Miller asked no questions about this executive order. He did not mention Congress’ role in any questions. He asked one question that referenced the FISA Court. He accepted what Alexander has claimed—that the agency self-reports all abuses and nothing illegal is done intentionally.

John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.

Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.

The NSA says their analysts use highly technical systems under increasingly complex legal requirements and that when mistakes are made, they’re human errors, not intentional abuses…

There was no follow-up question here. Alexander claimed “nobody willfully or knowingly” tried to “break the law” without any proof to back up the claim, and Miller accepted, because he is the NSA chief, it must be true.

A journalist who was not conducting the interview as part of some public relations service would have asked why so many “mistakes” or “human errors” seem to be foreseeable. The FISA Court opinions declassified, along with a report from The Washington Post, suggest agency lawyers know technology collects US citizens’ data regularly and broadly, but because the agency is not “targeting” Americans the NSA continues to store data on Americans it could not collect if it targeted Americans directly with surveillance.

And then, there was this “question” he asked Alexander:

John Miller: So you understand then, there might be a little confusion among Americans who read in the newspaper that the N.S.A. has vacuumed up, the records of the telephone calls of every man, woman and child in the United States for a period of years– that sounds like spying on Americans.

The agency is pushing this distinction, that collection is not surveillance. All of the above is happening, but, for public relations purposes, they do not want to call it surveillance so it seems like the process is not intrusive to Americans.

That was the extent of John Miller’s focus on the alleged and/or revealed corruption at NSA. He did not ask about porn-spying, spying on gamers in “World of Warcraft,” or the collection of cell phone data of Americans traveling abroad. He asked the bare minimum amount of questions on what had been revealed, which were mainly designed to give Alexander an opportunity to tell him, “That’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong.” He wanted to get to the real highlight of the segment: Edward Snowden and all the horrible, awful, no good very bad things he had done.

Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA’s leak task force, was interviewed by Miller. Continuing to hype the access “60 Minutes” was granted, Miller asked him how many television interviews he had done. “One, this one,” Ledgett said.

John Miller: There’ve been all kinds of figures out there about how much he took, how many documents. We’ve been told 1.7 million.

Rick Ledgett: I wouldn’t dispute that.

What kind of answer is that? Did he take 1.7 million or not? Ah, what does it matter. Maybe it’s lower, but Ledgett liked the sound of that number. (It’s his first TV interview.)

Ledgett suggested that Snowden cheated on a test to get a job at the agency. If that’s true, that is further embarrassment to the NSA. How many employees who engaged in such illicit activity working for the agency now? It probably does not know.

Snowden also worked on his computer at home with a “hood that covered the computer screen” so his girlfriend could not see what he was doing. That would be because he understood the US government would come after him for his whistleblowing and he wanted to protect his girlfriend by not informing her of what he was doing so they could target and prosecute her.

Miller explained that “60 Minutes” had learned “part of the damage assessment considered the possibility that Snowden could have left a bug or virus behind on the NSA’s system, like a time bomb.”

Rick Ledgett: So, all the machines that he had access to we removed from our classified network. All the machines in the unclassified network and including the actual cables that connect those machines, we removed as well.

John Miller: This has to have cost millions and millions of dollars.

Rick Ledgett: Tens of millions. Yes.

Notice it is not stated with certainty that a “time bomb” was left but that there was a “possibility.” The NSA exploited the opportunity to upgrade systems that it should have upgraded before Snowden. It gave tens of millions of dollars to a private contractor. The NSA should have been in the process of doing this prior to the leaks because of Chelsea Manning. In any case, all of this is can be factored in as damage or cost to the agency that Snowden will be held responsible for causing if he ever is tried in a US court. It does not matter if he did anything to their systems. They recognized they could take advantage of this opportunity, and the upgrade that cost “tens of millions” would increase the severity of his “crimes.”

Miller asked Ledgett if Snowden took anything that worried him “more than anything else.”

Rick Ledgett: It’s an exhaustive list of the requirements that have been levied against– against the National Security Agency. And what that gives is, what topics we’re interested in, where our gaps are. But additional information about U.S. capabilities and U.S. gaps is provided as part of that.

John Miller: So, I’m going to assume that there’s one in there about China, and there’s one in there about Iran, and there’s another in there about Russia.

Rick Ledgett: Many more than one.

John Miller: Many more than one?

Rick Ledgett: Yes.

John Miller: How many of those are there?

Rick Ledgett: About 31,000.

John Miller: If those documents fell into their hands? What good would it do them?

Rick Ledgett: It would give them a roadmap of what we know, what we don’t know, and give them– implicitly, a way to– protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view.

John Miller: For an adversary in the intelligence game, that’s a gold mine?

Rick Ledgett: It is the keys to the kingdom.

How does NSA know he took these? Officials have said that investigators will not ever know the extent of what he took because the Hawaii data facility where he worked did not have employee monitoring software. Plus, why would Snowden want to release sensitive information on what the NSA knows about Russia, China or Iran?

Snowden recently told TIME Magazine, “There have of course been some stories where my calculation of what is not public interest differs from that of reporters, but it is for this precise reason that publication decisions were entrusted to journalists and their editors.” Miller could not include this in “60 Minutes” because it would call into question the idea pushed by NSA that Snowden believed no secrets should be kept. (As he said on CBS back in June, “Manning and Snowden offered a bold new proposition, not one about smuggling a sheaf of documents out to sell to an enemy but the ability to electronically steal hundreds of thousands of documents in a keystroke and a belief that a government that keeps secrets is the enemy.”)

Miller said Snowden is “believed to still have access to a million and a half classified documents he has not leaked.” This may be what Ledgett told him privately off-camera, but it is false. Snowden has no documents anymore and so his access is limited to whatever file journalists Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras might ask him to explain for their stories. Greenwald and Poitras have full sets of documents, not Snowden.

That brings us to the issue of amnesty for Snowden. This is the exchange that was making headlines ahead of the aired interview.

John Miller: He’s already said, “If I got amnesty I would come back,” given the potential damage to national security, what would your thought on making a deal be?

Rick Ledgett: So, my personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about. I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part.

John Miller: Is that a unanimous feeling?

Rick Ledgett: It’s not unanimous.

Yet, this is not a hostage situation. This is an act of whistleblowing, one that is far from complete because journalists continue to publish news stories and will continue to publish stories well into 2014 since only about 1-2% of the files Snowden took with him have formed the basis of news stories.

For this to work, Snowden would have to have files to return to the NSA. He has none. They are in the possession of journalists so Snowden would have to convince Greenwald, Poitras, Barton Gellman, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post to give back all that they have. It will never happen.

Also, this quote—”If I got amnesty I would come back”—has never been uttered by Snowden. He also never asked for clemency (but the New York Times created this misperception, which the government took advantage).

What we have here is a self-perpetuating cycle of propaganda. The White House says no clemency for Snowden, like he asked for it. John Miller, who may return to work for the US intelligence community (and in some respects still is working for it), says he already said he would accept amnesty if he was offered because of this manufactured story about clemency previously in the news. Ledgett uses the opportunity to spew propaganda about how he would have a conversation and need “assurances that the remainder of the data could be secure,” as if that is even a remote possibility. And it gives NSA the ability to, from a public relations point, say we let Snowden make his point. Come back home now and stop damaging the United States.

However, it is worth recognizing that over a span of six months the US intelligence community has gone from hysterically pushing conspiracy theories about what information China, Russia, Iran or other US enemies managed to obtain from Snowden to an internal discussion about whether to grant Snowden amnesty so this could all be over. They are all clearly tired of being scrutinized. They are also tired of losing to Snowden, journalists, privacy groups and politicians, who are changing public opinion. And that is primarily why the American public was treated to this propaganda, which Miller proudly presented last night.

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