NSA Still Has No Idea How Many Documents Snowden Took... But Insists We Can Trust Them Because They Audit Everything

from the there's-a-disconnect-there dept

In the ongoing saga over the NSA's snooping on just about everyone, the one message the NSA and its defenders keep going back to is this idea that we need to "trust" them. And they insist that the trust is fine because everything they do is carefully monitored and audited. In John Oliver's recent interview with former NSA boss, General Keith Alexander, Alexander insisted that this kind of tracking and auditing was fool-proof, claiming that it had caught the twelve people who had abused their authority to spy on specific individuals. Except that Alexander was flat out lying there. First of all, internal investigations have shown thousands of abuses, not just twelve. As for the twelve that Alexander is talking about, when we looked through the details, it became clear that only three of the twelve were caught because of audits. And many were only caught because the guilty party later confessed -- sometimes many years later.

In other words, all this talk of how we should "trust" the NSA because its audits are so good... don't pass the basic laugh test. Yes, twelve people were caught, but nine of them were caught because they confessed themselves or others turned them in. Your guess is as good as mine about how many others abused the system without getting caught at all. Alexander insists that number is zero, but he has no way to know that.

Meanwhile, every time the NSA talks about how wonderful its auditing system is, it seems worthwhile to remind them that Edward Snowden walked out the door with a bunch of documents and no one noticed. At all. As we've been pointing out for months, that should call into question just how good those "audits" are.

And, to make this point even clearer: nearly a year after Snowden walked out the door with all of those documents, the NSA still has no idea what he took. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Alexander is still saying the NSA has no idea how much Snowden took:

AFR: Can you now quantify the number of documents [Snowden] stole?

Gen. Alexander: Well, I don’t think anybody really knows what he actually took with him, because the way he did it, we don’t have an accurate way of counting. What we do have an accurate way of counting is what he touched, what he may have downloaded, and that was more than a million documents.

In fact, the NSA keeps changing its story on how many documents. Early on, Greenwald had suggested it was in the 60,000 to 70,000 range. Just a few days ago, Ewan MacAskill, the often-overlooked Guardian reporter who was with Greenwald and Laura Poitras when they first met Snowden, told a conference that Snowden had 60,000 documents. Yet, by November, the NSA was claiming it was over 200,000 documents. And in December it suddenly jumped to 1.5 million, and then days later, 1.7 million -- based on the assumption, as Alexander admits above, that Snowden took everything he "touched."

But just that very admission highlights that the auditing system the NSA keeps insisting we should trust is completely broken. As we've noted, if the NSA can't tell how its own systems are being used, then it has no idea how they're being abused. Even worse, the NSA has no idea if other people with powers similar to Snowden may have taken other documents and given them to those who actually mean to do us harm, rather than reporters looking to serve the public interest.

In admitting that the NSA has no way of knowing what Snowden did, Alexander is admitting that all this talk of the infallible audit system is all smoke and mirrors. And, because of that, the claims that we can trust the NSA not to abuse its systems are equally untrustworthy.
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Filed Under: audits, ed snowden, keith alexander, nsa, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Michael, 8 May 2014 @ 12:48pm

    Re:

    Spying on friends isn't proper behavior

    That's not really true in intelligence communities. There has always been an unwritten rule that countries (at least most of the western countries) don't get upset when intelligence agents are caught spying on each other.

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