The House Intelligence Committee's Misinformation Campaign About the NSA
Rep. Mike Rogers, Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), is a busy man. Since June, he (and HPSCI) have been all over the media with press statements, TV appearances, and tweets, relentlessly trying to persuade the public that the National Security Agency (NSA) is merely doing its job when it collects innocent users' calling records, phone calls, and emails.
One such release is a "Myths v. Facts" page tackling the fact and fiction of the NSA's activities. In addition to collecting phone calls and emails, we now know these practices include deliberately weakening international cryptographic standards and hacking into companies' data centers, but, unfortunately, the page is misleading and full of NSA talking points. And one statement is downright false.
In the "Myths v. Facts" page, HPSCI touts company cooperation with the spying programs, writing: the NSA is not stealing data from tech companies without their knowledge. But two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported the exact opposite: the NSA secretly broke into the main links connecting data centers within Yahoo! and Google. Time for an update?
HPSCI is supposed to be informed of significant intelligence activities—and given Rep. Rogers’ well-publicized concerns over cybersecurity (he introduced a bill called CISPA), we'd expect him to ensure the committee knew of such an attack if he’d been informed. Members of Congress must find out whether HPSCI knew about the attacks on private companies, and if they did, why they published such misinformation.
The document also uses two different word games. First, it sets up a straw man by focusing on how the phone records program using Section 215 of the Patriot Act doesn’t collect the content of users' communications. But NSA is using Section 215 to collect "metadata" that reveals every American’s calling records—calls to your doctor, your church, your partner, etc.—which severely chills core Constitutional freedoms.
HPSCI's site neglects to note that the ongoing leaks provide evidence that, while spying on foreigners, the NSA collects Americans' phone calls, emails, and other content using Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Instead of discarding emails belonging to innocent users, the NSA keeps the communications. The Intelligence Committee document completely ignores this point by focusing on Section 702's prohibition of "targeting" Americans. That’s a red herring: regardless of “targeting,” the NSA is still collecting and storing the content of Americans' phone calls and emails without a warrant.
The "Facts" Continue
HPSCI also tells us that members of Congress were fully aware of the programs. But freshmen members of Congress have noted that that they were not shared important documents before key votes in December 2012 reauthorizing the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. More generally, senior members of Congress have decried briefings by the intelligence community as playing a game of "20 questions." Just last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI, the Senate counterpart to HPSCI), admitted how hard it is to get straight answers. In a recent article, she noted: "Once it gets started in one administration or two administrations back, it just continues on. They grow, they mutate, whatever it may be. You wouldn't know to ask, that's the thing. I wouldn't have known to ask."
Lastly, HPSCI says that the NSA isn't "using the '[Business Records]' program to do extensive data mining on Americans' phone records." The Business Records program may not be doing the actual data mining, but as we noted in our recent post on Executive Order 12333, there are secret guidelines that supposedly allow NSA to use the metadata collected under Section 215 and Section 702 to map out social networks. Essentially, the data mining is occurring under a different program that is still secret, and unknown, to the American public.
The Intelligence Committees’ Role in Oversight and Information
HPSCI, like SSCI, was originally created in the 1970s after the Church and Pike committees investigated the activities of the intelligence community, found systemic abuses of privacy and civil liberties, and recommended reforms to prevent those abuses from happening again. Its primary responsibility is to oversee the intelligence community and to inform the public and Congress about the intelligence community's activities. We need HPSCI to tell the truth. That's clearly not the case with the supposed "Myths v. Facts" website. And it's sad to see a committee originally created to rein in the abuses of the intelligence community—as when NSA collected every single telegram leaving the country—tout incorrect or misleading talking points.
Congress Must Investigate
It's one of the many reasons why Congress must establish a special investigatory committee into the spying as a result of the Intelligence Committee's inability to release factual information about the spying. A special investigatory committee could look into the NSA's activities and perform a review of the current oversight regime—paying particular attention to what other information the NSA is collecting about innocent users and how Congress can be better informed. As this document shows, members of Congress and the general public should not rely solely on HPSCI for facts about the NSA's activities. It also forces us to ask: How much do these intelligence committees really know about what the intelligence community is doing? Do they understand enough about what they don’t know to be able to avoid unwittingly misinforming us?