NSA’s Marching Orders to Congress: Deceive the Public, Praise NSA Effusively

Blogger Mike Masnick recently came across a series of talking points that the National Security Agency provided its putative “overseers” on the congressional intelligence committees back when it first became known that President George W. Bush had authorized an unlawful warrantless surveillance program.  (These talking points have apparently been publicly available for some time, but have escaped attention.)

Some pieces of NSA’s script for its legislative vassals are merely humorous. For instance:

I have personally met the dedicated men and women of the NSA. The country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude for their superb efforts to keep us all secure.

One perk of this sort of ventriloquism, I suppose, is that you can dispense entirely with modesty when heaping praise on yourself.

Other points on the list, however, appear to be outright falsehoods.  For instance:

I can say that the Program must continue. It has detected terrorist plots that could have resulted in death or injury to Americans both at home and abroad.

As best we can tell from the unclassified version of the Inspectors General’s Report on the President’s Surveillance Program, this is not true.  Rather, while it appears to have had some value, the program “generally played a limited role in the FBI’s overall counterterrorism effort,” and “was rarely the sole basis for an intelligence success.” On the whole, it “was not of greater value than other sources of intelligence,” and “most [intelligence] officials had difficulty citing specific instances where [the program] had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes.” The classified version of the report apparently discusses several cases in which the warrantless surveillance program “may have contributed” to counterterrorism efforts, but it certainly doesn’t sound like they found clear-cut cases where it was the key to foiling an attack. The New York Times had reported as much back in 2006:

The law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said the program had uncovered no active Qaeda networks inside the United States planning attacks. “There were no imminent plots—not inside the United States,” the former F.B.I. official said.

Returning to the talking points, there’s this:

The Program is not “data mining”; it targets only international communications closely connected to al Qai’da or an affiliated group.

Two deceptions for the price of one! As we now know, the original “Stellar Wind” program did indeed involve data mining as well as warrantless wiretapping. Once the program was revealed, however, intelligence officials retroactively decided to make up something called the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” as a label for only the warrantless wiretapping component of the program. Then, even though the NSA surveillance program did involve data mining, they could claim that the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” didn’t use data mining, because they’d defined it (without telling anyone) as the non-data-mining parts of the real larger program. Can you imagine a normal person getting away with this kind of wordplay? (When I said, “I didn’t commit the crime,” I was referring to my friend Irving by his first initial, you see, so it’s not perjury…)

Also, as the Inspectors General concluded, “most [of the surveillance program’s] leads were determined not to have any connection to terrorism.” Or as the Washington Post reported in 2006:

Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use. […] Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well.

So in fact, almost none of the thousands of Americans spied on without a warrant were “closely connected” to a terror group.

If I were one of the Intelligence Committee members who’d parroted these talking points, I’d be rather angry about being duped into deceiving the American people. But then, the committee members are politicians…