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Mangled facts, secrecy brew confusion about NSA

Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 7:55 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Senate Appropriations Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., listens to testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington from Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and head of the U.S. Cyber Command.

WASHINGTON – Wondering what the U.S. government might know about your phone calls and online life? And whether all of this really helps find terrorists? Good luck finding solid answers.

Americans trying to wrap their minds around two giant surveillance programs are confronted with a mishmash of leaks, changing claims and secrecy. Members of Congress complain that their constituents are baffled – and many lawmakers admit they are, too.

Adding to the confusion and suspicion, those defending the programs – from President Barack Obama to the nation's spy chief to lawmakers – have sometimes mangled the facts.

Questions that could help sort things out often get the same answer: "That's classified."

"It's very, very difficult, I think, to have a transparent debate about secret programs approved by a secret court issuing secret court orders based on secret interpretations of the law," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a long-time champion of privacy rights.

The nation's spy leaders promise to declassify more information about the programs, but say revealing too much would tip off terrorists and help them escape detection.

Only vague outlines of the two programs that suck up phone records and Internet data have been declassified since the first leaks were published last week in The Guardian and The Washington Post. There's no website, no book, no investigative report for Americans to turn to for the official facts.

That magnifies the confusion sown by misleading, retracted or inflated claims. A look at some of the misstatements:

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THE 9/11 ARGUMENT

The government's surveillance powers were expanded after the intelligence failures of Sept. 11, 2001.

To explain why millions of telephone records are now stored in a digital library, the NSA chief raised as an example one of the 9/11 hijackers.

In a Senate hearing, Army Gen. Keith Alexander implied that had the program been around before 9/11, the intelligence community might have sifted through records of past calls to catch the hijackers before they crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

He pointed to hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar.

"We didn't have the data collected to know that he was a bad person," Alexander said.

But the U.S. did know that Mihdhar was a bad guy. The CIA knew that Mihdhar had met with other al-Qaida operatives at a January 2000 gathering in Malaysia.

The big problem was the CIA failed to immediately share what it knew about Mihdhar.

The information wasn't passed to the FBI until late August 2001. The FBI began searching for Mihdhar in early September, but it was too late.

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THE FOILED SUBWAY BOMB

A 2009 plot to bomb the New York subways is being showcased as a triumph for expanded surveillance.

But the details are getting muddied.

First, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, credited the phone records data with thwarting al-Qaida bomber Najibullah Zazi's plan.

Then, talking points declassified by the Obama administration and circulated to lawmakers attributed the success against Zazi to a different NSA program, the one called PRISM that taps into email and Internet traffic in search of terrorists.

The use of PRISM to catch Zazi does little to resolve whether the government needs a program that collects such vast amounts of data, sometimes sweeping up information on American citizens.

Even before the post-Sept. 11 expanded surveillance, the FBI had the authority to – and did, regularly – monitor email accounts linked to terrorists. Before the laws changed, the government needed to get a warrant by showing that the target was a suspected member of a terrorist group. In the Zazi case, that connection already was well-established.

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THE 'LEAST UNTRUTHFUL' ANSWER

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper describes his attempt to dodge a question as "too cute by half."

Sen. Ron Wyden, who posed the question in March, says Clapper failed to give a straight answer. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., suggests Clapper's answer amounts to perjury and he should resign.

The exchange came at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing before the phone program had been divulged.

"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden, D-Ore., asked Clapper.

"No, sir," Clapper answered.

"It does not?" Wyden pressed.

Clapper reluctantly softened his answer somewhat: "Not wittingly," he said. "There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect – but not wittingly."

Turns out they do file away phone records – not conversations, but the phone numbers of calls placed and received – on millions of Americans.

After that leaked to the public, Clapper tried to explain his answer in an NBC News interview. "I responded," he said, "in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner."

Wyden says he even gave Clapper a day to prepare his answer. And, Wyden says, he gave Clapper a chance to change his answer in private.

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CONFUSION IN CONGRESS

Even one of the surveillance programs' staunchest supporters had trouble keeping the basics straight.

Explaining the programs to reporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., initially described how the NSA uses pattern analysis to sort through millions of phone calls from the United States.

"You basically say, 'Computer, tell me who has called Yemen once a week for the last month,' " Graham said. "They spit out a bunch of numbers."

But intelligence officials say that doesn't happen.

They say Americans' phone records are only accessed if there is evidence connecting them to suspected terrorists – not just a pattern of calls, such as to a certain country.

After intelligence officials objected, Graham – a member of the Armed Services and Judiciary committees but not the Intelligence panel – said he had misspoken.

But his earlier words reflect privacy advocates' fears about the sort of thing the government might do with its library of call records, if not now then maybe someday in the future.

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OBAMA'S TAKE

The president tried to reassure Americans about the massive surveillance programs. But he left some misimpressions.

"With respect to the Internet and emails," Obama said, "this does not apply to U.S. citizens."

Indeed, intelligence agency leaders say that these programs can't legally target Americans. That doesn't mean their online activities won't be swept up in the surveillance net, however.

Analysts watching a suspected terrorist see that person's emails, Facebook friends and other online traffic that might include Americans.

And American communications can be accidentally captured by computer programs searching for data on terror suspects. John Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence, said such unintentionally gathered information wouldn't be kept or used by agents.

Some Congress members bristled at the way Obama described briefings available to them: "Your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing," he said.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said: "The impression has been created that people (are) parked in our office giving us daily briefings on this, or monthly briefings. And that's not been the case."

At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Johanns complained: "We're all getting bombarded with questions that many of us at the rank-and-file level in the Senate cannot answer."

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Associated Press writers Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, Lara Jakes, Matt Apuzzo, Donna Cassata and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ConnieCass

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