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Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Prism documents: Are they "Rather" deceptive?

Everyone's talking about the NSA and PRISM. Right now, I'm toying with the notion that these disclosures were, at least in part, disinformation. Those Top Secret docs never looked quite kosher to me, and I can't quite buy the notion that the NSA would rely on voluntary cooperation from the big internet companies.

Those companies are putting out some rather convincing denials. Here's Mark Zuckerberg:
I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:

Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday.
And here's Google:
First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.
Frankly, I think these denials are persuasive.

One of the things that bothers me about PRISM is that the described program simply doesn't match what we've previously heard about the NSA's capabilities. Frankly, PRISM is too small-potatoes. Ever since Russell Tice came forward, we've known that No Such Agency now has the capability to scoop up everything -- and by "everything," I mean everything: Phone calls, internet chats, text messages, the works. The eavesdropping isn't considered true eavesdropping until human eyes have looked at the data; until then, the daily haul can be data-mined endlessly by software.

Now as it happens, one of the authors of the WP story -- a filmmaker named Laura Poitras -- uncovered a lot about this much larger NSA project via another whistleblower, William Binney. There are indications that Binney supplied her with the PRISM documents.

Poitras made a fine short documentary about Binney which has been embedded into this New York Times page. For technical reasons, I cannot embed the video here, but please watch it -- you'll learn ten times more about what the NSA is really getting up to than you'll learn from any of the PRISM stories. (Also, the film is very nicely shot. I'd like to know what kind of camcorder Poitras uses.)

The technology described by Binney does not match the rather lower-tech world of PRISM. Binney also describes the rather harsh pressure tactics the NSA has employed against him. So if (and let me emphasize that word: If if if) he participated in a disinfo scheme, one can understand why.

The obvious parallel goes to those notorious Texas Air National Guard documents handed to Dan Rather.

Undoubtedly, a program named Prism does exist; Obama has so admitted. But...
During the speech, Obama responded to citizen’s concerns vaguely, and provided little details on how the program actually works.
In other words, we have verified the nomenclature. We have verified the existence of a program. But nobody has verified those documents.
Couldn't it all be done through a cutout/contracter, to give the companies deniability? Isn't there a data mining company with a product called Prism? Or maybe the Internet companies don't even know? Maybe the NSA doesn't need their cooperation: What about Room 641a at the AT&T facility in San Francisco?

Did you watch Rachel Maddow last night? She asked all the very same questions.
I think the key word in both quotes is "direct."

Both companies have given indirect access for years, and played footsie with the Feds every chance they can get.

Joe haven't you argued on these pages that Facebook is a CIA/NSA front? They created it to gather intel.

I think this is the effective end of the Obama administration.

For what it's worth, some of my sources and friends are saying the leaker is probably a Democratic elected official with high security clearance.

Rather than point to particular officials, such as Bush and Obama, it might be worthwhile assuming that the government itself has an interest that can encroach on the liberties of its citizens. There are of course legal opinions on the taking of troves of personal data. Here is an ethical analysis:
If Anon's sources are correct, might it have been an appointed official rather than an elected official?

Could Hillary have gathered the necessary information before she left office?

I think of Hillary because of the 2008 campaign.

"Ah, Kirk, my old friend, have you heard of the Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best eaten when cold?

It is very cold in space."

Things that make you go "Hmmm..."
I think Anon at 9:43 makes a good point. All of the companies listed that had their servers tapped used the same language--'direct access'--in their responses. That seems more than coincidental.

Also agree that of all the recent 'scandals,' this one is the most damaging. And that Binney video from the NYT you linked, Joe, is one scary piece of film, particularly the way Binney has been treated since the disclosure and the amazing discussion on the definition of 'intercept.' The Rule of Law has been twisted into a monstrous, unrecognizable configuration.

The timing of all these recent leaks is very curious. There appears to be a definite tug of war going on behind the scenes. Are there good guys and bad guys involved in all this? I don't even know anymore. And therein lies the tragedy.

Has Zuckerberg ever talked about or even acknowledged the seed money that Facebook got from the IQT division of a Certain Intelligence Agency? It's not implausible that the investment came with a string attached to a back-door key.
The best disinfo is 95% true. So the powerpoint could be genuine--but with "enhancements".
Trojan Joe--a plausibly deniable backdoor key.
I thought Zuckerburg was just a nice young boy who dropped out of college so he could create an international multi-billion dollar financial and communications empire in his spare time with his own resources and without any help from his friends. But his denials are rather convincing.
Maybe I'm missing something, but when your previous post came to the postulation of "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!" ... I was surprised. I hadn't thought that was where you were going at all. It doesn't really make any sense to me. Once they make it impossible to track leaks, what exactly are they going to 'leak, leak leak'? Other stuff that makes the intel community look bad?

Aside from the internecine characters and relationships, the broad strokes seem to me to potentially provide cover for Obama's "end the war on terror" statements. Inflaming public sentiment about encroachments on privacy could be used to build support for an end to some 'war on terror' policies, at least in that area.

On the WaPo publishing the PRISM story given their history, to me that indicates a lack of high-level pushback; if the WaPo was publishing the PRISM story due to winks and nods from not just the Intel community, but rather a faction of said community, in conflict with others, and in opposition to the President... to me, that sounds like the WaPo is betting all it's "access" chips on the anti-Obama faction, even risking the ire of the White House.

While reading your post, where I thought you were going was... White House and/or pro-Obama intel community personnel possibly involved in the leaking - with the intent of helping Obama. I suspect there are still some in the intelligence community who have seen it's reorganization into something completely at odds with it's stated principles. I also suspect that whatever rigor that once existed in those agencies has largely been destoyed through decades of politicization, reaching back into the 1970's.

Truth is, I wonder if you didn't make your postulation as a jest, to test people. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't see it.

Would it possible to create a scenario wherein pro-Obama, pro-intel(with a brain) elements are causing these leaks?

And No, I'm not a fan of, or apologist for Obama.
Can't help it, but I want to mention another thing...

I don't think we should get too caught up in whether or not the various internet companies disavow knowledge of the PRISM program. The question relates only to corporate policy within those companies. While understanding those policies and their importance is not a small matter, in my opinion it does not effect the central issue at hand: Privacy vs. Gov't overreach.

Look: IF you accept the PRISM story is accurate, or if you believe it reveals only a portion of NSA ability, THEN you, by definition, believe that the intelligence community has access at least at the level PRISM describes. If you doubt the reporting, fine; if you accept the reporting but question the corporate response, you're chasing a red herring. It's entirely possible that the NSA has managed access to all the companies mentioned without their knowledge.

You might want to read this by your fellow Baltimorian David Simon ("The Wire").

I am not endorsing what he said. Far from it. Far FAR from it.
Based on my [admittedly] [thankfully] limited personal experience with the NSA -- primarily through classmates in a Masters program at GWU fifteen years ago -- I can't imagine they could assemble that Powerpoint presentation for only $20 million. On the other hand, if this mysterious, $20-odd million project is indeed their single most productive program, let's double funding for it and redline the rest of the agency's budget.
Random comment that may or may not be relevant, but telecoms and other IT companies vie for Federal contracts.
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