No, NSA's General Alexander was Not Making Stuff Up

    WASHINGTON — Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, said on Tuesday that American surveillance had helped prevent “potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11,” including at least 10 “homeland-based threats.” But he said that a vast majority must remain secret to avoid disclosing sources and methods......

    The Doubters: 

    Where are the indictments, any indictments? Are they all Top Secret? What is a Homeland based threat and why haven't we heard about it, surely we would have seen it as it would be front page news, right?

    Where is the legal action on the terror cases General Alexander testified about today in Congress? Did the accused simply 'disappear'?

    NYT commenters, Facebookers, Twitterers and yes, Rand Paul are irate that their supposedly Constitutionally protected phone/digital  privacy has been sullied and stolen. By an oppressive Orwellian regime that is out of control.

    They don't believe a word the NSA Chief, the President, or anyone in government, says about the the program.

    Some go so far as to say even if it saved their own personal life, the NSA snooping isn't worth it...(.no argument on the implication of that judgment.....)

    It just so happens NSA keeping logs on phone call numbers is legal, it is not a violation of the 4th Amendment.  US Supreme Court ruling from 1979.

    Information you give over willingly to a third party is not protected by the 4th Amendment.

    One ruined life avoided, one family not torn apart, one arm or leg saved from a bombing, is frankly worth more than all the baloney and bellyaching about NSA phone logs, or wild accusations that the US is now North Korea, false claims that our 'civil liberties' are being destroyed, or malarkey that this will hamper 'the free flow of information!" It's legal and it has worked to uncover plots and make arrests. Does it need close supervision? Yes.

    Indictments/pleas and prison sentences have resulted. A few cases:

    Khalid Ouazzani 2010

    Indictment of Najobullah Zazi 2009, and on Wikipedia

    David Headley, Wikipedia



      If it is legal, that might be part of the problem, as the guy in your link says. He says one of the laws being invoked is the Patriot Act, which many think is unconstitutional.


    If its legal is still an open question imo. This is the case the article refers to.

    This case presents the question whether the installation and use of a pen register 1 constitutes a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, 2 made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961). [442 U.S. 735, 737]

    I On March 5, 1976, in Baltimore, Md., Patricia McDonough was robbed. She gave the police a description of the robber and of a 1975 Monte Carlo automobile she had observed near the scene of the crime. Tr. 66-68. After the robbery, McDonough began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls from a man identifying himself as the robber. On one occasion, the caller asked that she step out on her front porch; she did so, and saw the 1975 Monte Carlo she had earlier described to police moving slowly past her home. Id., at 70. On March 16, police spotted a man who met McDonough's description driving a 1975 Monte Carlo in her neighborhood. Id., at 71-72. By tracing the license plate number, police learned that the car was registered in the name of petitioner, Michael Lee Smith. Id., at 72.

    The next day, the telephone company, at police request, installed a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the telephone at petitioner's home. Id., at 73, 75. The police did not get a warrant or court order before having the pen register installed. The register revealed that on March 17 a call was placed from petitioner's home to McDonough's phone. Id., at 74. On the basis of this and other evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search petitioner's residence. Id., at 75. The search revealed that a page in petitioner's phone book was turned down to the name and number of Patricia McDonough; the phone book was seized. Ibid. Petitioner was arrested, and a six-man lineup was held on March 19. McDonough identified petitioner as the man who had robbed her. Id., at 70-71.

    If the police had installed 5 million pen registers on every resident in Maryland with the intention of leaving them in place forever instead of one pen register on the phone of a suspect of a criminal investigation I'm not convinced that even this conservative Supreme Court would have found that constitutional. I'm not a constitutional lawyer but it seems to me this is a slim thread to hold up the legality of the collection of all the phone call metadata of every American every day forever and saving it in a massive government server.

    The ACLU is trying once again to bring a case to the Supreme Court and now, because of Snowden, they probably will be able to prove standing so we may get another decision. The ACLU must not believe this 1979 case settles the issue.

      And there is apparently some question as to whether the law does cover this.

    Did the Boston cops/FBI have court permission to GPS track the hijacked guys phone that he left in his stolen car before the big shoot out as the Chechens tried to leave Boston for NYC?

    Should the phone company have blocked such a request on principle until their lawyers or Rand Paul said it was OK in a annotated legal brief signed by the hijacked phone owner?

    I guess sometimes emails or phones have to be followed in 'real time'.

    3. 10 NSA officials have permission to give information about US citizens to the FBI
    There are 10 NSA officials—including Inglis and Alexander—involved in determining whether information collected about US citizens can be provided to the FBI. It can only be shared if there's independent evidence that the target has connections to a terrorist organization. Inglis said that if the information is found to be irrelevant, it must be destroyed. If the NSA mistakenly targets an American citizen, it must report this to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

    If this is true, then I would have no problem with this facet of the program.  There is always a balancing act between safety/security and individual privacy and liberties. The above example seems reasonable given the real threats out there. 

    Maybe, but doesn't it depend on how the government defines terrorist organization?

    The FBI improperly targeted Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and two antiwar groups in domestic terrorism investigations between 2001 and 2006, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice said in a report released today.

    The IG found there was "little or no basis" for the terror investigations, and that they were "unreasonable and inconsistent with FBI policy."

    At least two of the investigations resulted in innocent people being placed on the domestic terror watch list for years, and one resulted in FBI Director Robert Mueller providing Congress with "inaccurate and misleading information," according to the report.

    The investigation of the Merton Center began with a "make work" assignment for a FBI agent on a "slow day," the report said.

    The Catholic Worker was investigated under the "Acts of Terrorism" classification after some of its members trespassed on a military facility and staged a peaceful protest.

    Even if the theory is right, the implementation in real time with real human institutions may not be appropriate nor ethical. That is why there should be some form of checks and balances and oversight, which itself needs to have oversight.

    I would add that an organization like Greenpeace should not be off limits to such investigations. It's just the investigating agencies need to have valid evidence to justify such investigations.

    I don't think anyone is lying.  I think they can name fifty cases.  I think they can describe them.  I also think, however, that there have been a lot of set-up prosecutions. Too many incompetents tricked into thinking they built the ultimate weapon.  How many of these threats, including those that have resulted in prison time, were not real threats at all?

    You might be right. Even highly intelligent people with delusions of grandeur can be easily manipulated. Art Appraiser's link to the Mother Jones' piece was a great read for me in that it made me able to finally sort of understand where I come down on these issues.

    1. If Edward Snowden did the right thing (I still don't think he did), he didn't do it in the best, most measured and thoughtful manner. The guy is acting like he thinks he's Will Smith in Enemy of the State

    2. Prism doesn't break the law. Edward Snowden did. I realize a lot of people who are up in arms at the disclosures being some gross miscarriage of our Constitutional rights were still kids when the Patriot Act was rammed through Congress. This does not give them a pass on getting up to date on just exactly what it is legal for government and law enforcement to collect. 

    3. As a result of what he did, we now have information about the Prism program and the data collection (see the Mother Jones article) that we should have had each and every year since the Patriot Act was passed. I don't need to know state secrets. I don't need (or want) to know which people are being surveilled. What I do need to know--or what the citizenry needs to know--is how these programs are being carried out to protect against government overreach.

    4. The anti-government and anti-police threads that run through much of our society perplex me. The vast majority of us are law-abiding and we actually like most of the laws we are abiding by. The government does good things for us like building roads and educating us. The government is supposed to be us. And the police are supposed to protect us. Perhaps abdicating our role as participants in our own democracy has led us to suppose that our government is only out for its own nefarious ends.

    5. We are broken in so many ways. There is no public trust in officials because many of the officials don't deserve the trust, yet somehow we keep returning them to office. The press isn't helpful. Our society (and probably any society) is based on balance--checks and balances. There is a balance between protecting privacy and stopping gross acts of violence. There is a balance between providing public services and over taxation, between encouraging economic development and protecting the environment, between encouraging economic development and protecting workers. Finding the fulcrum has always been our challenge and one that our elected officials used to take seriously. Not anymore. 

    If politicians fail to, as you say so well, "find the fulcrum,' then the fulcrum will find itself.  I think this is why the mainstream response to Snowden has been so measured.  He broke the law but most people, the folks you don't find arguing politics on the internet, are not up in arms about it.  Possibly because they suspect that if this wasn't precisely what needed to be done that it fills a vacuum left by something else that was missing.

    I think that's right. The discussion has started and we have more information about the program than we did two weeks ago. Frankly, it's information that I can live with. I don't care if they have my metadata if it's going to be destroyed after five years (which I heard in a news report that I unfortunately can't provide the link for because I don't remember), if the NSA digs deeper for such a small number of people, and if they are thwarting attacks, I'm pretty much good. 

    Privacy has always been a bit of a myth anyway. Law enforcement has always had the most advanced ways of finding stuff out. If you do something wrong and don't live like the unibomber, they're probably going to find you quickly. Even the unibomber was found eventually.

    And, although this point muddies the waters somewhat, Congress just passed a horrible anti-abortion bill. I'm eons and eons (and EONS) more worried about the privacy of my own body than what I write in an email to my dad.

    But I should also say that I agree with Ramona about Snowden. I hope he does some serious jail time. 

    Reality check: the Constitution trumps. A Patriot Act rammed through Congress can still be unconstitutional, whether as written or as carried out in practice.

    If Congress writes it flawed, if Congress doesn't supervise properly, if the Executive Branch doesn't implement properly or hides misuse, if the judicial branch doesn't review or allow relevant grievances to move forward, if there's not enough public or cross-institutional info & transparency to allow unbiased review, a variety of unpleasant unconstitutional effects can result.

    This seems to have already happened, but it will take some time to come out of our post-9/11 terror! terror! terror! doldrums where everything can be sacrificed to avoid the possibility that 3000 people might be killed again.

    Of course we had 300,000 combat deaths in WWII, and another 50,000 in Vietnam, but these days we're death-averse - we'd rather give up freedoms than risk death or injury. Which is fine, as we have little inspiring to say anymore, so shutting ourselves up is no big loss. Sarah Palin is our new patron saint - The Quitter. Or the latest Barbie - "Constitutional Law is tough".

    A responsible Congress would investigate the prosecutions of persons set up by the FBI.

    They are now temporarily off Benghazi, and are passing more laws protecting the unborn.

    It would be easier to believe in the NSA if we could believe in the Congress that oversees it.  Also, I really can't fathom how I an believe in that oversight if James Clapper can blatantly lie and keep his job.

    Congress is busy with important things like masturbating male fetuses and cutting food stamps.

    A secret NSA surveillance database containing millions of intercepted foreign and domestic e-mails includes the personal correspondence of former President Bill Clinton, according to the New York Times.

    An NSA intelligence analyst was apparently investigated after accessing Clinton’s personal correspondence in the database, the paper reports, though it didn’t say how many of Clinton’s e-mails were captured or when the interception occurred.

    The database, codenamed Pinwale, allows NSA analysts to search through and read large volumes of e-mail messages, including correspondence to and from Americans.  Pinwale is likely the end point for data sucked from internet backbones into NSA-run surveillance rooms at AT&T facilities around the country.

    I'm sure they fixed all that now so its all good. No worries, nothing to see here.

    The link to the June 16, 2009 NYT piece that the Wired article gives no longer works, but I adjusted the url and found it, it's here:

    For those with access, it's really worth reading. First it's a "dejas vus allover again," or "everything old is new again."

    Second, for someone interested in researching the facts about Congressional work on this in the past, and  trying to figure out if anything had been changed by the Obama administration or the Congressional committees at that time.  It is about both specific abuse incidents at the time or before and also about the same general program, and about the Congressional investigations into both at that time, especially those led by Rush Holt.

    Article also says that In April, the Obama administration said it had taken comprehensive steps to bring the security agency into compliance with the law after a periodic review turned up problems with “overcollection” of domestic communications. The Justice Department also said it had installed new safeguards

    The article doesn't really solve the disconnect between those two points, it's like just reporting the start of the hullaballo on these abuses (i.e., Rush Holt et. al. investigations, Obama changes a couple months before), There's a suggestion that Obama admin. may have fixed the problems that Congress were investigating, but that's not clear. But has got a lot of detail that suggests this is not all new news to the Congressional committees that deal with it. Suggests to me that the reactions now of people like Senator Feinstein, i.e., "we know about this, we worked on the flaws" were not disingenuous.

    But one would have to follow up with subsequent articles/reporting to find out what happened, because this article is obviously reporting right in the midst.

    P.S. At the end of this snippet from the piece is a great quote from Holt:

    Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, has been investigating the incidents and said he had become increasingly troubled by the agency’s handling of domestic communications.

    In an interview, Mr. Holt disputed assertions by Justice Department and national security officials that the overcollection was inadvertent.

    “Some actions are so flagrant that they can’t be accidental,” Mr. Holt said.

    Other Congressional officials raised similar concerns but would not agree to be quoted for the record.

    Mr. Holt added that few lawmakers could challenge the agency’s statements because so few understood the technical complexities of its surveillance operations. “The people making the policy,” he said, “don’t understand the technicalities.”

    Thanks so much AA. I always try to go back to the original article and I was really disappointed when the link didn't work..

    You can go read Marcie Wheeler on a whole lot of background and analysis, including deciphering many of the lies about these programs and their supposed success.

    Obama & co are focusing on metadata, but the NSA can turn around and easily grab phone calls based on any of that metadata, and the FISA court doesn't look at specifics.

    And they were tapping phone calls en masse 10 years ago with Echelon. Things have only gotten worse, but there may have been a few shells moved around with different names to keep us complacent.

    Digby takes on the obvious lies in Obama's bromance/love-a-thon with Charlie Rose.

    But I guess it's time for many "liberals" to assert their security state credentials just to show they're not limp-wristed liberals.

    But this one's weird: "Information you give over willingly to a third party is not protected by the 4th Amendment." First, I think it's misleading - they're recording lots of phone calls, not just metadata - Snowden just didn't deal with this.

    But did you give your info to Verizon, or do they collect it? Did the court rule on 200 million intercepts or a particular one? Is that 2nd party or 3rd? Google doesn't have to save my IP over the course of the day. But hey, I typed in my PIN code at the bank machine this morning - that's info I gave over willingly to a 3rd party, no? Shouldn't the NSA have a right to that too? I left a piece of toilet paper in the bowel at the library - I guess my expecation of privacy, that government agents won't by doing chemical analysis of my turds, is foregone - I shit somewhere in public, and now I'll pay the consequences. [hey, even my home turds go out through city plumbing, so I'll have to take my er lumps -here are some tweezers, guys, happy snorkling]

    Nice parsing rights with liberals. But somehow we're safer, even though it took 10 years to find bin Laden and we're still stuck in Afghanistan. We didn't stop the Boston Marathon bomb, but I'm sure the lesson will now be to have cameras every 20 paces across America. It's legal! Let's do it!

    So we should shrink the intelligence apparatus to a size so small that we can drown it in a bathtub? Should the US stick to just typical shoe leather investigation? If other nations use cyber-attacks, how should we respond? What is your view of the limits of electronic surveillance? 

    Jesus, another straw man reaction. "Do you favor torturing babies instead?"

    No, we should make intelligence accountable to the law and Congress (in detail, not just waving a magic wand over it), and publicize that which doesn't need to be secret. Like the reforms after the Church Committee helped put in place.

    Do legal procedures scare you? Shouldn't 300 million Americans be able to vote on whether they want that amount of information held about them? Is every secret sacred if it was invented by the government? Do we trust the CIA & NSA more now than when they were training countries for torture in the School of the Americas or overthrowing democratic governments in Iran?

    I simply asked a series of questions. I previously noted that lawsuits were being filed to directly address the legality of the current system. That seems the most rationale approach because Congress is dysfunctional.

    You might not like the actual results of a plebiscite on whether the intelligence community should be free to use to techniques currently being discussed.the public very likely agree with drone flights over large nets to monitor crows and provide video feeds if an attack did occur during the event. The idea would be if they didn't stop the events. Suspects could be rounded up more quickly. Do you see the public voting against a greater "sense" of security?





    Occasionally the public surprises when informed.

    In the meantime, we have the Constitution as a reasonable backup, if people maintain it.

    The Constitution was not always protective.

    Shouldn't 300 million Americans be able to vote on whether they want that amount of information held about them?

    No, emphatically no. Theoretically we are a nation of laws not men. The Bill of Rights is there to protect the civil rights of all citizens, not just the majority. Many of the advances in our civil liberties would have been voted down if they were up to a vote. Most people agreed with some of the most egregious abuses and if we put it to a vote each time a question come up there would be many more abuses.

    One would hope that the majority would vote to protect the rights of the minority. But more often than not, I doubt they would. The will of the people should not matter when it comes to the Bill of Rights. One would hope the Supreme Court would uphold the constitution and protect our rights. Unfortunately those who are closer to my view of the constitution on the Supreme Court have been mostly losing 5-4 for the last dozen or more years.

    I think Al Gore articulated my view very well.

    "I am not sure how to interpret polls on this, because we don't do dial groups on the bill of rights," he said.

    "This in my view violates the constitution. The fourth amendment and the first amendment – and the fourth amendment language is crystal clear," he said. "It is not acceptable to have a secret interpretation of a law that goes far beyond any reasonable reading of either the law or the constitution and then classify as top secret what the actual law is."

    "I quite understand the viewpoint that many have expressed that they are fine with it and they just want to be safe but that is not really the American way,"

      In 1948, about 90% of American adults opposed interracial marriage when the Supreme Court of California legalized it, and California became the first state that allowed   interracial couples to marry. 1
    bullet In 1967, about 72% of adults were still opposed to interracial marriage. This was the year when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage everywhere in the U.S. 2



    Nevertheless, gay rights followed efforts to improve popular support for gays in the military and gay marriage. The courts being usually conservative typically follow, not lead, public opinion, including changing mores on race and sexual identity. The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact nor a continual affront to popular opinion, though sometimes is invoked for a critical change.

    Emphatically yes - we can amend even the Bill of Rights via vote in state legislatures. Not quite the same thing as referendums, but the best the Constitution allows.

    But even if the surveillance is constitutional, there's a limit to what should be allowed in secret in the name of whatever principle. I can't write or call my Congressperson if I don't know that something is happening. Upping security in airports with scanners & take-off-shoes is one thing, tracking all citizen's phone calls & internet habits is another.

    In any case, we probably both agree that the 4th Amendment is being thrown under the bus, including by a majority of "liberals" - whether to back their guy in the big house, or just grown scared post-9/11 & it feels like Linus' big ol' bankie.

    A majority of "liberals" think that some people may be naive. Many people are not shocked when they learn that NSA monitors foreign universities. The reason that they are not shocked is because they suspect that foreign governments spy on US universities. One of the discussions with the Chinese was about Chinese hacking of US sites.The Chinese were not shocked by the charge of hacking because the Chines are hacking and China's leaders know it. When some gets a case of the vapors about NSA hacking Chines universities and does not acknowledge Chinese hacking, the message received is that the person is out of touch with reality and wants the US to stand down and do nothing.

    Most people who use the net know that they are under attack. They have read of Chinese attacks, Russian attacks and Iranian attacks. I suspect that people who read about the US crippling an Iranian nuclear plant and hack Al-Qaeda's online magazine took it with a sense of pride.

    Cyber-attacks are real. Video surveillance is real.Video surveillance appears to have aided in helping law enforcement identify the Tsarnaevs. As long as people who realize that there are active threats are labeled as looking for their blankie, and the obvious existent of threats are ignored, people who only identify the US as the root of the problem will be ignored.

    The Supreme Court recently ruled that law enforcement can perform DNA testing for people who have been merely charged with a crime. SCOTUS interprets the Constitution. Keep your fingers crossed on what a court that is likely not fully aware of the intricacies of in Internet does regarding random bytes of data on the web and the governments ability to sweep the data.

    Technology has changed. The ability of a dedicated person to use simple material to build a bomb is a fact. The ability of foreign governments to hack the US is a fact. Any discussion that centers on what the US government is doing to "protect" us has to be done with the realization of clear and present dangers that pose threats. Few are going to be willing to have the US stand down while other entities continue hacking or terrorists plot. In an era of cyber- attacks, few are going to rely on good old shoe leather detective work alone to protect us.

    Any discussion that does not acknowledge external threats and simply labels the US as the source of the problem will be ignored by most people. How do we maintain freedom in the era of cyber-attacks. If video surveillance is a norm, what is the argument against monitoring crowds with drones?

    The discussion has to acknowledge that less surveillance might mean an attack occurs. On the other hand there was data available regarding plotting 911 that wasn't addressed. There was data on the Boston Bombing suspects that wasn't addressed. A large database may make us less safe than a smaller, focused database. Lets discuss, but leave the blankie analogy behind.

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