Yes, Of Course NSA is Collecting Metadata from Members of Congress
The New Year seems to have resurrected the Edward Snowden saga from its slow fade-to-black.
First, there’s a roiling case for the Justice Department to offer Snowden clemency or some kind of plea deal. It’s a bizarrely timed surge in pro-Snowden sympathy considering how his Christmas video was nothing but a series of wildly fabricated claims, such as his insistence that NSA watches literally “everything we do” and will soon possess the capability to record and analyze all of our thoughts, thus calling into serious question the credibility of earlier Snowden pronouncements as well as his, you know, grip on reality.
By all means, we should welcome this crank back to the U.S. as a free man with internet access and the blueprint for America’s national security apparatus. What could possibly go wrong?
Just beneath the clemency headlines, meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wrote to NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and asked point blank, “Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?” The letter defined spying to also include metadata collection. It shouldn’t have (more on this presently).
An NSA spokesman told The Washington Post:
“Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons,” the spokesman said. “We are reviewing Sen. Sanders’s letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all members of Congress, including Sen. Sanders, have information about NSA’s mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties.”
Following the publication of this quote, the Greenwald Super Friends assembled in their Hall of Outrage to frenetically screech in unison, “IEEEEEE! The NSA didn’t deny spying on Congress! GUIL-TY! GUIL-TY!”
And no, NSA didn’t categorically deny it. Why? Because of course NSA collects the metadata generated members of Congress, as it does with virtually everyone who owns a phone.
But if you define this as “spying” then holy jeebus, I don’t know what to tell you other than to ask whether you prefer to be called “Alex,” or “Mr. Jones.” The word “spying” is generally inferred as directly and secretly targeting a person for observation. This is precisely what people like Sanders and Glenn Greenwald want the general public to take away from questions like this. That’s the ruse: conflate targeted spying with metadata collection so people are misled into believing that NSA is spying on you personally.
Perhaps this is a good time review exactly what metadata is, and how it’s collected. Metadata is composed of the following pieces of information: your phone number, the phone number you called, and the date and time of the call. That’s it. It doesn’t include the content of the calls or your name. Authorization for the bulk collection and storage of metadata is granted by federal judges that compose the FISA Court. Moreover, if you’re a “U.S. Person” who happens to have been called by someone who’s being targeted by NSA, your metadata is digitally minimized before any analysts lay their eyes on it — in other words, your information is anonymized unless an NSA analyst, through a complicated bureaucratic process, shows cause and eventually requests an individual warrant to reveal your information. Otherwise, it’s never actually viewed by human eyes at NSA.
This is a far cry from spying on or targeting members of Congress — or you, for that matter. Indeed your favorite corporations, such Facebook and Google or banks or credit rating agencies, collect, analyze and even distribute far more detailed information on you and your congressman than NSA could ever dream of attaining. Hell, The Guardian collects more detailed information about you and your computer when you click on an article than is contained within your phone call metadata — the NSA collection of which, by the way, requires court and congressional oversight. On the other hand, there’s zero oversight in corporate data collection.
This raises the question: why is it horrifying for NSA to have a secure database of American metadata that it’s incapable of accessing without a complicated process involving reviews and reports culminating in a court order from a federal judge, while it’s perfectly okay for corporations to have significantly larger data clouds on your personal activities without any court oversight whatsoever?
Now, we can debate whether bulk collection is the best way for NSA to do its job. We can also debate, as President Obama’s NSA panel recommended, whether phone companies should retain metadata records instead of NSA (hint: privatizing metadata collection and storage is a phenomenally bad idea — see also the Target credit card theft story, for example). But we can’t have any real debate if the facts are clouded by scare-words cranked to 11 and framed in a way that only misinforms the public while fluffing the outrage-porn industry, from which Glenn Greenwald and his cohorts are handsomely profiting.