As you probably already know, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras of the Washington Post have gifted us with NSA Bombshell Story number 2
-- just one day after Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian offered NSA Bombshell Story number 1. Greenwald spoke about the NSA and phone records; the Post writers discuss the NSA and computer records.
I'm more than a little curious about the timing of these scoops, and about the choice of journalistic venue. We'll get to those concerns in short order. For now, let's talk PRISM:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind.
Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
PRISM was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush’s secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.
Congress obliged with the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection. PRISM recruited its first partner, Microsoft, and began six years of rapidly growing data collection beneath the surface of a roiling national debate on surveillance and privacy. Late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.
Allegedly, PRISM focuses entirely on foreign traffic. But we all know that in the internet age, signals can bounce all over the place. You may recall this earlier post
, in which I noted that my computer was communicating with...well, it seems
to be a field in the U.K. The address is owned by none other than Microsoft -- the same Microsoft mentioned above as being the first provider on board with the NSA's PRISM program.
The WP shows us some relevant documents it has obtained here
Although you may think I'm being unnecessarily contrarian, I am not inclined to talk about PRISM per se
. Instead, I find myself fascinated by the way the NSA scandal has played out.
Look closer. This is a very odd business. Very
The first thing you have to understand is this: The WP is a right-leaning paper which normally bends over background not
to offend the intel community. I don't think that the Post has ever had one nice thing to say about Julian Assange -- and yet, right now, the paper is
Wikileaks. For that journal to publish documents marked "TOP SECRET" and "NOFORN" (no foreign distribution) is really, really
Think about it. When was the last time the Post pulled a stunt like that?
Second, these leaks occurred directly after we witnessed a massive scandal over the DOJ's efforts to track who leaked what
to certain journalists. In particular, Justice wanted to know who leaked North Korean nuke info to James Rosen of Fox News. The timing seems more than a little suspicious: First Rosen, then Greenwald, then Gellman and Poitras -- boom boom boom.
Obviously, the administration must be salivating to know (if it doesn't know already) who gave secret documents to Greenwald and to the WP team. Just as obviously, the professional leak-trackers must now feel shackled; Obama cannot want a repeat of the James Rosen affair
My earlier piece indicated that Rosen has pretty good wires into one sector of the intelligence community. In other words, this guy is more spooky than spooked-upon.
And now I'm wondering: Just how did this Rosen business first become public?
The original "spying on Rosen" scoop appeared in -- you guessed it -- the Washington Post
. That report was based on this
search warrant affidavit (which I really should have read earlier).
Y'know what's odd about the publication of this warrant? Search warrants having to do with national security investigations are always sealed
. Such documents are not supposed to show up on the WP website. Yet...lo! There it is
We know that this particular warrant was, in fact, sealed because it says so on pages 35-36:
Because this investigation is continuing and disclosure of some of the details of this affidavit may compromise subsequent investigative measures to be taken in this case, may cause subjects to flee, may cause individuals to destroy evidence and/or may otherwise jeopardize this investigation, I respectfully request that this affidavit, and associated materials seeking this search warrant, be sealed until further order of this Court.
The obvious question: If the warrant was sealed, how did the WP get hold of it?
Here are a few other obvious questions: Why wasn't the WP (normally quite ass-kissingly deferential when it comes to the FBI, CIA and DOD) willing to publish documents of this sort during the Bush years? Why did the WP publish the sealed Rosen affadvit and the Top Secret NSA documents, even though it tried to cover up the Downing Street Memo revelations back in 2005?
In what way does the WP's NSA story substantially differ from anything Julian Assange or Bradley Manning are accused of doing?
The State Department cables allegedly released by Manning were mostly harmless piffle. By contrast, this sealed Search Warrant, so kindly provided by the Washington Post, may have helped Kim Jong-Un identify an American intelligence source deep within the North Korean power structure. That
, my friends, is pretty freakin' important
So why is Manning on trial in Fort Meade as we speak, while the writers and editors of the Washington Post sleep the sleep of the protected?
Leaking to the Guardian is not without precedent. For decades, the intel community has seen the benefit of leaking certain data to journalists known to be muckrakers unloved by The Establishment, precisely because those journalists appeal to a readership that more conservative writers will never reach. (You want proof? Let's talk about Jack Anderson one of these days. And then maybe we should talk to an old spook-watcher like Robin Ramsey about the Guardian's history.)
In this light, we must respectfully ask Greenwald
to tell us as much as he reasonably can about how he learned what he learned. In his CNN interview, he gave no hint as to the origin of his leak.
Although I remain a Greenwald admirer, let's face it: He's not known for scoops of this sort, the kind that involve the furtive transfer of Top Secret documents. (Initial reports of a DOJ effort to track the Greenwald leak
have been shot down.)
You can see where I'm going with this.
I posit that an anti-Obama faction within the intel community has conjured up a long-term plan: First, make it politically impossible for the administration to track leaks to journalists. Then...leak, leak, leak!
Make no mistake: The stuff being leaked is quite significant in its own right. Obama is being hoisted by his own petard. Of course
I'm infuriated by the PRISM revelations. Of course
I am glad that we may finally have a national dialogue about NSA overreach. My own record on privacy issues should be quite clear; I have been quite the scold on that topic.
But even as we welcome a pro-privacy movement, let's be honest: These leaks wouldn't have happened to Dubya.
(Folks, I'd really like feedback on this post -- even negative feedback. Please pass this one around!)