After a closed Senate briefing today, Senate Intelligence Committee leader Dianne Feinstein talked up the vast system of checks and balances protecting Americans from unwarranted dragnet surveillance by the NSA. She said (emphasis added):
To search the database, you have to have reasonable, articulable cause to believe that that individual is connected to a terrorist group. Then you can query the numbers. There is no content. You have the name, and the number called, whether it’s one number or two numbers. That’s all you have… if you want to collect content, then you get a court order.
What does she mean, "collect content?" This doesn’t appear to be a normal, conversational usage of the word “collect”—a word that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has a special definition for. He’s been accused of lying in a recent Senate hearing when he denied that the NSA collects data on American citizens. But no, he says, we’re mistaken—see, we just have differing opinions on what the word “collect” means:
To me, collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.
Let’s assume that Intelligence and Congress are on the same page with this unusual definition (and also assume we can just decide a word means something that it doesn’t). Then, Feinstein’s statement takes on new meaning.
Take the bookshelf metaphor. In order to collect data (a book), we take the book off the shelf, open it up, and read it. But wouldn’t that imply that the book was on the shelf to begin with? Going by Feinstein’s statement, it would seem this way. She’s not talking about getting permission to perform wiretaps on terrorism suspects (something the FBI can already do without assistance from secret courts or the NSA). She’s talking about looking into an existing database for “content,” a database that must store a whole hell of a lot more than just metadata.
But what, specifically, is she talking about? Here’s what Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said after the same hearing:
Only when there is probable cause, given from a court order by a federal judge, can they go into the content of phone calls and emails…
Ah, that explains it. So they’re storing the actual content of phone calls and emails in some NSA database somewhere. No big deal, and rest assured, they won’t look at it unless they really don’t like you. I guess that’s what Representative Loretta Sanchez meant when she said that Snowden’s leaks were just the “tip of the iceberg.”
This shouldn’t come as a shock, but look at it for what it is: to date, the government has only acknowledged that they receive (not “collect”) telephone records on millions of American citizens. They have not acknowledged that they also get the content from those phone calls. They’ve noted that the specific FISC order that Snowden leaked does not apply to content, but they’ve stopped short of denying that similar court orders exist that would apply to content. And really, they wish we’d stop asking them about it because it’s classified.
Need more evidence? In a recent interview about the Boston Marathon investigation, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente shocked CNN’s Erin Burnett when he nonchalantly revealed that the government could listen in on past phone conversations between suspect Tsarnaev and his wife, or indeed any Americans. When CNN dragged him back in the next day for follow-up questioning, he stuck to his guns, adding that “all digital communications” are recorded and stored, and that “no digital communication is secure.”
I thought we were better than this… this ISN’T what the Founding Fathers set out to achieve, and… … just because...
God dammit, America
Unexpected? No. Scary? Yes.