NSA chief General Keith Alexander faced tough — and funny — questions from Congress Tuesday stemming from Wired’s story on the NSA’s capabalities and warrantless wiretapping program.
Congressman Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, asked Alexander whether the NSA could, at the direction of Dick Cheney, identify people who sent e-mails making fun of his inability to hunt in order to waterboard them.
Alexander said “No,” adding that the “NSA does not have the ability to do that in the United States.” Elaborating, Alexander added: “We don’t have the technical insights in the United States. In other words, you have to have […] some way of doing that either by going to a service provider with a warrant or you have to be collecting in that area. We’re not authorized to do that, nor do we have the equipment in the United States to collect that kind of information.”
That statement seemingly contradicts James Bamford’s story, The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), as well as stories from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Wired, which collectively drew a picture of the NSA’s post-9/11 foray into wiretapping the nation’s telecommunication’s infrastructure to spy on Americans without getting warrants.
In the process — and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration — the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.
But in testimony Tuesday in front of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Alexander responded to questions about the program, saying the NSA did not have the capability to monitor, inside the United States, Americans’ text messages, phone calls and e-mails. He added that if the NSA were to target an American, the FBI would take the lead and fill out the paperwork. (That’s an odd statement, since the process for targeting an American by the intelligence services is for the NSA to fill out the paperwork, submit it to the Justice Department and then send it to a secret court, according to statements by former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell.)
Alexander and Johnson both mispronounced Bamford’s name as Bashford (a Freudian slip). But it’s an odder mistake by Alexander, given that Bamford is the premier chronicler of the NSA.
It’s hard to tell here whether Alexander is parsing the questions closely, misspeaking or telling the truth. The heads of the intelligence service have a long tradition of misspeaking or telling untruths that advance their agenda. President George Bush himself on the re-election campaign trail said that no American had been wiretapped without a warrant, which was plainly false, according to numerous news stories and the government’s own admissions of the program.
In the aftermath of those half-truths, the Congress passed, and Bush signed into law, the FISA Amendments Act, which re-wrote the nation’s surveillance laws to give the NSA a much freer hand to wiretap American infrastructure wholesale.
Court challenges to the program, brought by the EFF and the ACLU, attempted to argue that even allowing the NSA to harvest Americans’ communications alongside foreigners into giant databases violated American law and the US Constitution. However, those challenges have never survived the Bush and Obama administration’s invocation of the “state secrets” privilege to have them thrown out of court.
Which is another way of saying that Americans have no idea what’s going on. Given the choice between an administration official saying nothing is going on and a respected reporter with inside sources saying something wicked this way comes, I know where my trust would lie.