When At First We Practice To Deceive
David Sirota argues in Salon that President Obama might be lying or is blissfully unaware about spying by the National Security Agency. In July, the Chief Executive had appeared on the CBS morning show to claim the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court is "transparent." In early August, he told NBC's Jay Leno "we don't have a domestic spying program." And on August 9, the President in a news conference maintained "what you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's e-mails. What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused."
Given the President's statements, he might have been unaware that The New York Times had reported in April 2009 "several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed on the matter, said the NSA had been engaged in 'overcollection' of domestic communications of Americans."
Oops. The day before Obama contended that "you're hearing" only about "the prospect that these" programs "could be abused by government," The Washington Post's Barton Gellman revealed
The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.
The documents, provided earlier this summer to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance. In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence...
The NSA audit obtained by The Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. The most serious incidents included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.
What the President doesn't consider "a domestic spying program" is ripe for abuse. For a report on former NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, mathematician and former Sun Microsystem's engineer Susan Landau was interviewed by the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, who wrote
The public doesn’t understand,” she told me, speaking about so-called metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content. She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.”
For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.
Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night.
"Most" instances "of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications" were "unintended," the Post found, a far cry from the mere "prospect" of abuse President Obama claimed, among the reasons Sirota maintains
I just don’t buy that he’s so unaware of the world around him that he made such statements from a position of pure ignorance. On top of that, he has a motive. Yes, Obama has an obvious political interest in trying to hide as much of his administration’s potentially illegal behavior as possible, which means he has an incentive to calculatedly lie. For all of these reasons, it seems safe to suggest that when it comes to the NSA situation, the president seems to be lying.