The NSA moved quickly to cover its tracks Tuesday after being publicly exposed for posting a false "fact sheet" on the Prism internet spying program that deceptively portrayed U.S. privacy protections as stronger than they actually are.
The public statement was initially published last week to quell widespread outrage at the NSA snooping program, exposed by The Guardian in early June. Facing heated questioning from Congress, chastisement from international governments, and deep anger from those caught in the vast spying dragnet, the NSA hoped to clear the air by illustrating the oversight and limits placed on internet snooping.
Yet, the fact sheet turned out to contain serious falsehoods, making what was already a highly secretive spying operation even more mysterious.
Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall released a public letter Monday declaring the "fact sheet" to be significantly inaccurate because it, "portrays protections for Americans' privacy being significantly stronger than they actually are."
The senators, however, did not publicly reveal exactly where the inaccuracies lie, because they do not wish to expose classified documents. Rather, they shared the inaccuracies in a classified letter to the NSA.
After the public exposure, NSA officials admitted that the document contained falsehoods. NSA head General Keith Alexander wrote a letter to the senators admitting the fact sheet 'could have more precisely described' NSA targeting.
As the Washington Post reports, NSA Spokeswoman Judith Emmel skirted the question of inaccuracies yet acknowledged the "fact sheet" had been removed:
Emmel would not explicitly acknowledge that the fact sheet had been removed from the agency’s Web site. Instead, she referred to the text of a 2008 law that governs NSA surveillance programs.
“Given the intense interest from the media, the public, and Congress, we believe the precision of the source document (the statute) is the best possible representation of applicable authorities,” Emmel said in a prepared statement sent by e-mail to The Washington Post.
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This is not the first time the NSA has been caught stretching the truth since the spying scandal broke.
Earlier this month, National Intelligence Director James Clapper was blasted for lying in a March testimony in which he declared that the NSA is not tracking and storing information on 'hundreds of millions of Americans.' Clapper defended his actions on the grounds that he responded in what he thought was 'the most truthful, or least untruthful manner.'
Senators Wyden and Udall are calling for the NSA to publicly admit to the falsehood, declaring, "When the NSA makes inaccurate statements about government surveillance and fails to correct the public record, it can decrease public confidence in the NSA's openness."
At this point, the public does not know which inaccuracies the NSA is admitting to.
An article in The Atlantic attempted to uncover the NSA statement's inaccuracies by comparing the disproved "fact sheet" with leaked documents. While they questioned many of the NSA statement's claims, they cast considerable doubt on the following "fact sheet" assertions:
- Any inadvertently acquired communication of or concerning a U.S. person must be promptly destroyed if it is neither relevant to the authorized purpose nor evidence of a crime.
- Any information collected after a foreign target enters the U.S. — or prior to a discovery that any target erroneously believed to be foreign was in fact a U.S. person — must be promptly destroyed unless that information meets specific, limited criteria approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Yet, the specific falsehoods pinpointed by the senators remain mysteries.
Trevor Trimm from the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed to broad NSA deceptiveness but also could not pinpoint the specific inaccuracies exposed by the senators.
I can't really tell which statement Wyden and Udall think is inaccurate. Many of the statements are written to downplay the true scope of what the NSA does and how it affects Americans' privacy. For example, they say nothing about how they can hold onto communications forever if the communication is encrypted. Essentially they're saying, if you value privacy, you are suspicious. But I doubt this is what Wyden and Udall are talking about. This is exactly problem with keeping such sweeping surveillance powers behind the veil of secrecy - the public has no way of knowing if what the government says is true or not.
But I have no doubt Wyden and Udall are correct. They originally said Americans would be "stunned" to learn how the government was interpreting the Patriot Act, and they were proven right when the Verizon court order was published. Wyden also alleged the NSA could conduct "backdoor searches" of US persons data after targeting foreigners under the FISA Amendments Act, and it's becoming increasingly clear, judging by the latest report from the Guardian, that he was right about that too.