The National Security Archive – NSA Retaining “Useless” and Highly Personal Information of Ordinary Internet Users, Spying …

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Snowden did get the FISA data, contrary to Keith Alexander's insistence to the contrary. Photo: EPA

Ordinary internet activity accounts for the overwhelming majority of communications collected and maintained by the National Security Agency (NSA). A recent report by The Washington Post, based on communications leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, revealed that nine out of 10 communications collected belonged to average American and non-American internet users who were not the targets of investigations. Much of the highly personal communications –including baby pictures and revealing webcam photos– provide little intelligence value and are described as useless, yet are retained under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments. The Post’s findings clearly contradict former NSA head Keith Alexander’s assertions that there was no way Snowden could “touch the FISA data,” and give credence to the argument that “the NSA has been proven incapable of safeguarding” the intelligence it collects, irrespective of its value.

In one 2005 document, intelligence community personnel are instructed how to properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance. In the place where the target’s real name would go, the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: “Mohammed Raghead.”

Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain’s latest Intercept expose reveals that the NSA, along with the FBI, covertly monitors the communications of prominent, upstanding Muslim-Americans under provisions of the FISA intended to target terrorists and foreign spies, ostensibly solely because of their religion. The FISA provision that seemingly codifies the surveillance requires that “the Justice Department must convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to believe that American targets are not only agents of an international terrorist organization or other foreign power, but also ‘are or may be’ engaged in or abetting espionage, sabotage, or terrorism.” In practice, however, the agencies monitored the emails of Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country, Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases, and other civically inclined American Muslims.

Why did the CIA take a chance on a BND employee naive enough to volunteer to spy for Russia via email?

White House officials are questioning why President Obama was left in the dark about the CIA’s German intelligence informant and his recent arrest, a somewhat baffling omission in the wake of revelations the NSA monitored the private communications of Chancellor Merkel and the resulting state of US-German relations. “A central question, one American official said, is how high the information about the agent went in the C.I.A.’s command — whether it was bottled up at the level of the station chief in Berlin or transmitted to senior officials, including the director, John O. Brennan, who is responsible for briefing the White House.” Of further interest is why the CIA made use of the German intelligence official in the first place, who not only walked into the agency’s Berlin office in 2012 and offered to spy, but also volunteered his spying services to Russia via email.

The internal affairs division of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is being investigated again, this time for mishandling the personal information of the agency’s 60,000 employees. Under investigation are defunct CBP programs that shared employees’ Social Security numbers with the FBI and that “automatically scanned the Social Security numbers of all the agency’s employees in a Treasury Department financial records database.” Both programs were part of the agency’s response to the Obama administration’s Insider Threat initiative.

Cause of Action’s latest “FOIA Follies” provides some insight on what qualifies for a (b)(5) “withhold because you want to” FOIA exemption at the IRS, and reinforces Archive FOIA Coordinator Nate Jones’ arguments of how the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 would address this overused exemption and help ordinary requesters. Cause of Action submitted a FOIA request to the IRS seeking records related to any requests from the President for individual or business tax returns in 2012, after which the IRS released 790 heavily redacted pages. Cause of Action filed suit in 2013 challenging the IRS’ use of exemption (b)(5) to withhold large portions of the records, prompting the IRS to “reconsider” some of its withholdings. The newly-released portions of documents reveal the agency was using the (b)(5) exemption to withhold mundane information contrary to Attorney General Holder’s 2009 guidance that “an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally.”

"Allegations of Torture in Brazil."

The Brazilian military regime employed a “sophisticated and elaborate psychophysical duress system” to “intimidate and terrify” suspected leftist militants in the early 1970s, according to a State Department report dated in April 1973 and made public last week. Peter Kornbluh, who directs the National Security Archive’s Brazil Documentation Project, called the document “one of the most detailed reports on torture techniques ever declassified by the U.S. government.” This document, and 42 others, were given to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff by Vice President Joe Biden and were made available for use by the Brazilian Truth Commission, which is in the final phase of a two-year investigation of human rights atrocities during the military dictatorship which lasted from 1964 to 1985.

The Pentagon and the Justice Department are going after the money made by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette from his book on the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, No Easy Day, for failing to submit the book for pre-publication review to avoid disclosing any top secret information about the raid. It’s worth noting that while the government goes after Bissonnette for releasing his book without pre-publication review, both the CIA and DOD provided unprecedented access to Hollywood filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal for their bin Laden raid blockbuster, Zero Dark Thirty, while simultaneously refusing to release the same information to FOIA requesters

A partially redacted 29-page report recently found low morale at the US government’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which is responsible for Radio and TV Marti. “Some of the reasons cited for low morale included the lack of transparency in decision-making, the inability to offer suggestions, and the lack of effective communication. Others were concerned about raising any issues to the inspection team because of fear of retaliation by management.”

 

Inside the biological weapons factory at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union was prepared to make tons of anthrax if the orders came from Moscow [Photo courtesy Andy Weber]

Finally this week, our #tbt document picks concern Eduard Shevardnadze, the ex-Georgian president and Soviet foreign minster who recently died at the age of 86. The documents themselves comes from a 2010 Archive posting on high-level Soviet officials debates during the final years of the Cold War about covering-up the illicit Soviet biological weapons program in the face of protests from the United States and Great Britain. The documents show that Eduard Shevardnadze, along with defense minister Dmitri Yazov, and the Politburo member overseeing the military-industrial complex, Lev Zaikov, were aware of the concealment and were actively involved in discussing it in the years when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was advancing his glasnost reforms and attempting to slow the nuclear arms race. Check out the documents here.

Happy FOIA-ing!