Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Swing and a Miss

On Sunday, CBS’ newsmagazine program 60 Minutes aired an episode billed as “unprecedented access to [the] NSA”. Given the regularly high reputation of 60 Minutesrecent transgressions aside — it sounded like a promising premise; however, it quickly became clear that this was little more than an NSA puff piece. Tougher questions were asked of Jeff Bezos when he was demonstrating Amazon’s pie-in-the-sky drone delivery system. All quotes here are from the official transcript, [sic].

The first potential issue here is the correspondent responsible for this piece. John Miller discloses at the beginning this conflict of interest:

Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates.

Anything coming from this report will be undermined by this very conflict of interest. Could CBS not find another correspondent to cover this story? Or, possibly, would the NSA only grant Miller access? These questions are unanswered.

Edward Snowden revealed another program called “prism.” Which the NSA says is authorized under the foreign intelligence surveillance act, or FISA. Prism is the program the NSA uses to target the Internet communications of terrorists. It has the capability to capture emails, chats, video and photos. But privacy experts believe the NSA’s dragnet for terrorists on the Internet may also be sweeping up information on a lot of Americans.

Gen. Keith Alexander: No. That’s not true. Under FISA, NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order.

We don’t get to hear Miller’s original question here — it has been replaced with a voiceover. However, notice the fuzzy distinction created between the original question asking whether American communications are being swept up with Prism, and Gen. Alexander’s response stating that American communications are not being targeted. This distinction was made clear earlier in the program when considering the NSA’s phone records-keeping:

John Miller: Then why do you need all of those phone records?

Gen. Keith Alexander: How do you know when the bad guy who’s using those same communications that my daughters use, is in the United States trying to do something bad? The least intrusive way of doing that is metadata.

Here, Gen. Alexander subtly admits that metadata concerning American phone calls is being recorded, but states that it is not being accessed.

In a similar vein, I doubt that it is possible for the NSA to record only foreign internet communications. Therefore, while Gen. Alexander’s statement that US communications are not being “targeted” without specific court orders may be true, it did not entirely answer Miller’s question of whether American internet traffic may be swept up by Prism.

John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.

Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.

First, that’s bullshit.

Second, if you watch the video version, you’ll notice a sharp cut between Miller’s question and Gen. Alexander’s response. I’d love to see an unedited version of this exchange or, indeed, the entire interview.

Edward Snowden worked for the NSA in Hawaii.

This is factually incorrect. Edward Snowden worked first for Dell, then Booz Allen Hamilton, both under larger contracts with the NSA, according to Rolling Stone. This is not a minor distinction; in a story about something as serious as this, every detail counts. The fact that Snowden worked for other companies which were contracted by the NSA could raise an interesting discussion about the US government’s procurement process; these questions can’t be asked if viewers are led to believe that Snowden was a direct NSA employee.

Miller then talks to Rick Ledgett, who runs the committee tasked with assessing the damage and potential damage of the documents Snowden took:

John Miller: Of all the things he took is there anything in there that worries you or concerns you more than anything else?

Rick Ledgett: It’s an exhaustive list of the requirements that have been levied against– against the National Security Agency. And what that gives is, what topics we’re interested in, where our gaps are. But additional information about U.S. capabilities and U.S. gaps is provided as part of that.

[…]

John Miller: If those documents fell into their hands? What good would it do them?

Rick Ledgett: It would give them a roadmap of what we know, what we don’t know, and give them– implicitly, a way to– protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view.

[…]

So far, none of those crucial documents have been leaked.

A couple of things are going on here, but the broader result of this is a character assassination on Snowden, raising suspicions that he will leak documents potentially catastrophic to US intelligence abilities or, worse, give or sell those documents to target countries. This line of questioning is dishonest and damaging.

Snowden and those he’s entrusted with the leaked documents have stated that they are carefully reviewing each document to ensure the contents are in the public’s interest, and that what they release will not contain specifically sensitive details. Furthermore, the documents that have been released so far have had some specific details redacted, demonstrating that news organizations are behaving responsibly and in the public’s interests.

In the program’s second part, Miller asks about the Reform Government Surveillance letter, signed by eight major tech companies:

John Miller: One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major U.S. Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?

Gen. Keith Alexander: No, that’s not correct. We do target terrorist communications. And terrorists use communications from Google, from Yahoo, and from other service providers. So our objective is to collect those communications no matter where they are.

But we’re not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo has an entity. But we will collect those communications of terrorists that flow on that network.

Once again, fuzzy terminology prevents this question from being asked and answered clearly. I don’t think Miller clearly understands what he’s asking here; or, at least, he has not demonstrated that he clearly understands what he’s asking here.

Gen. Alexander’s response states that they aren’t targeting the entities, but the data from those entities. That’s a distinction which doesn’t necessarily answer the question. Furthermore, his response that they collect “communications of terrorists” flies in the face of his earlier response regarding the collection of communications regarding Americans; specifically, that they must collect all records:

Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, the reality is if you go and [get a specific court order] for each, you have to tell the phone companies to keep those call detail records for a certain period of time. So, if you don’t have the data someplace you can’t search it. The other part that’s important, phone companies– different phone companies have different sets of records. And these phone calls may go between different phone companies. If you only go to one company, you’ll see what that phone company has. But you may not see what the other phone company has or the other. So by putting those together, we can see all of that essentially at one time.

If they cannot specifically target the collection of phone call metadata, do you really think that they can specifically target the Gmail inboxes or iCloud accounts of terrorists?


My grievances with this interview basically come down to two things:

  1. much of the interview was spent as a puff piece explaining why the NSA is so great, why these programs are ostensibly necessary, and why you shouldn’t be worried; and
  2. CBS really blew their “unprecedented access” chance.

I’ve explained the first a little bit above, and I don’t think I need to re-hash it. I invite you to watch the full 60 Minutes episode to experience the cushy line of interviewing.

My second issue with this report is substantially more frustrating.

In the twenty-five-minute piece, significant questions remain inadequately explained. Approximately ten minutes of the piece’s second half is spent meandering through the NSA offices, glancing at cabinets full of secrets without actually being able to show anything within, and asking a code breaker to solve a Rubik’s cube. All of this makes for flashy television, but occupies the time for the questions that should have been asked when 60 Minutes was granted “unprecedented access”.

Issues concerning classified programs other than the phone metadata collection and Prism program remain unaddressed. The programs and systems known as Boundless Informant, XKeyscore, Stellar Wind, the broader tapping of fibre-optic connections, or that big-ass data centre in Utah all remain unaccounted for by the NSA. Either Gen. Alexander was not asked about these issues or the exchanges were not aired. One would think he’d jump at the chance to defend these programs. Similarly, Miller did not ask Gen. Alexander about his misleading 2012 Congressional testimony. To be fair, 60 Minutes has limited airtime, but they also spent thirteen minutes talking about the persecution of Egypt’s Coptic Christians. And, while that story is certainly valuable, perhaps it could have been bumped to next week in order for more time to be spent on such a significant issue as the NSA’s tapping of worldwide communications.

Finally, Miller does not appear to fully understand the subjects of the questions he’s asking. As noted above, the distinction between collection and access remained unclear throughout all interview segments in which it was discussed. In the past, a court order was required in order to intercept communications of Americans in any way, including wiretapping, or to begin recording these communications. With Prism, it appears that the NSA has been collecting communications en masse, and — in accordance with FISA regulations — must receive a court order to look at American communications. This distinction remains unaddressed. If Miller knows the difference between the two — and he should, if he’s responsible for filing this report and having worked in National Intelligence previously — he did not seek to clarify this distinction at any opportunity; if he did not know the difference, he should not have been the reporter in charge of this story.

This grievance is similar to John Gruber’s qualms with Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs”, insomuch as both reporters wasted a critical opportunity. CBS repeatedly emphasized how significant it was for them to be allowed on-camera interviews with NSA employees. If this occurrence was as rare as they made it out to be, they missed their one shot.