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"We could tell you, but then we'd have to"

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) implied in a letter this week that it can not answer to Congress fully due to national security.

I. Dissolving the Senate

Some members of Congress are beginning to contemplate if they made a mistake in passing the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act Additional Reauthorizing Amendments Act of 2006, even as others argue the NSA needs less accountability and more freedom to spy on Americans to secure the nation.

The NSA put its Congressional supporters in awkward spot this week, when it basically claim Congress gave it powers of secrecy that trumped Congress's own powers to govern.

Bernie Sanders
The NSA basically refused to answer to Congress regarding whether it spies on them.  Senator Bernie Sanders is demanding the agency come clean about its activities.

Specifically, the NSA refused to (for now, at least) answer a direct question from U.S. Senator Bernard "Bernie" Sanders (D-Verm.) regarding whether the NSA "spies" on Congress.

Sen. Sanders wrote in a leter addressed to retiring/resigning NSA chief General Keith Brian Alexander:

Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?  “Spying” would include gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business?

The NSA implies it has turned on Congress, spying on the nation's elected officials.
[Image Source: NYPost]

In a preliminary reply, given to CNN, the NSA more or less shot down the Senator's request.  It refused to directly answer his question, instead stating:

NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.

The NSA has already claimed it does not "spy" on Americans or "collect" their data in the language of the NSA, but it does "touch" their data.  In plain English this means it does spy on Americans and collect their data.  The NSA has also stated that any intercepted data from Americans is held only "temporarily".  Recent leaks reveal "temporarily" in plain English means it is housed in an NSA deep storage facility for 15 years.

II. "Innocent" Lies?

Gen. Alexander -- an official who once fashioned himself a "throne" of sorts to command his "information dominance" strategy -- and his cohorts may be wary of being ruled in contempt of Congress, should they deliver false information.

Gen. Alexander
NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander fought his whole career to seize the world's data, including the data of all Americans.  He is at last close to suceeding in this quest for power. [Image Source: Fox News]

NSA administrators, Gen. Alexander, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Gen. James Robert Clapper, Jr., have already given false testimony to Congress several times.

For example Gen. Alexander claimed that NSA spying on Americans had stopped 54 attacks, then later drastically cut that figure, asserting that he "believed" it actually "might" have stopped one or two attacks.  DNI Clapper told Sen. Ronald Lee "Ron" Wyden (D-Oreg.) in Mar. 2013 that the NSA did not collect information on "millions" of Americans -- or at least not willingly.  He later "corrected" that statement, which his office called an innocent error.

James Clapper
Director Clapper's office blames Congress for Director Clapper's false information he shared with Congress.  They argue the former General shouldn't have been forced to answer such tough questions.
[Image Source: AP]

The DNI's general counsel Robert Litt in a letter to the editor of The New York Times this week seemed to say that the falsehoods were Congress' fault for putting intelligence administration officials under pressure and forcing them to prioritizes the need to obey national security laws versus their duty to the Constitution.  He writes:

As a witness to the relevant events and a participant in them, I know [the allegation that DNI Clapper lied under oath] is not true because the program involved was classified.

This incident shows the difficulty of discussing classified information in an unclassified setting and the danger of inferring a person's state of mind from extemporaneous answers given under pressure.

The NSA's refusal to answer Sen. Sanders' question indicates it is highly likely that the NSA is indeed "spying" -- in the traditional sense of the word -- on members of Congress.

III. Senator Wouldn't Let NSA Play Word Games

The NSA collects such information via digital interception and attack scripts, which use automated cybercriminal tactics (such as malware) to attack Americans.  Recent reports also indicate that the NSA is intercepting Americans' electronics, as well, and implanting bugs in them, or "implants" as the NSA calls them.

Assuming that the NSA is spying on Congress, as the NSA's comment would seemingly suggest, Sen. Sanders' letter would put Gen. Alexander in an awkward spot as it was clever enough to cut through the NSA's jargon game, which it has used to dodge past questioning.

Congress Buillding wide
Congress is afforded the same level of liberty as average Americans when it comes to spying, the NSA says. [Image Source: U.S. Congress]

Specifically the NSA and other executive branch intelligence agencies have written their own dictionary of sorts, dubbed United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, a document classified above top secret.  The document creatively redefines many terms related to spying to obfuscate the federal intelligence community's intent and actions.  In many cases -- including how the NSA collects Americans' data -- the agency definition appears to be remarkably different from the common sense definition.

As President William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton (D) famously remarked about his testimony to Congress during questioning about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

But Sen. Sanders was wise to the NSA's game and specifically defined the word "spying" hismelf in the traditional it means to most of his staffers, most of his constituents, and most Americans, for that matter.  In doing so he may have provoked a new strategy from the NSA -- silence.

IV. Ultimate Power?

If it indeed chooses to claim the need for secrecy has trumped the need to give Congress information, the NSA spying program will have entered a new era where in effect it argues that the laws passed by Congress have basically nullified the Constitution, by granting part of the Executive branch (spy agencies) unlimited secrecy from public courts (most of the justice branch), the legislative branch, and the people at large.

The NSA claims that absolute power under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act's 2006 renewal.  The same language in the bill has also been justified for making the FISA Court (FISC) created by the bill a "secret" court, in a sense.  Under the bill, it's a crime to reveal decisions of the FISC.  The FISC has used this threat to drape its general warrants program in a cloak of secrecy.  However, leaks from Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA's general warrants cover all Americans.

Secret courts
 At least the British gave the colonies the courtesy of passing general warrants in a public court.
[Image Source: Before Its News]

Such mass warrants were common in the colonial U.S. as British authorities tried to crack down on American colonies' political and economic freedoms.  A common misconception is that imperial England in the 1700s had no courts; much like America today it did in fact have courts and a legislature, and even offered limited versions of both to the U.S. government.

The general warrants issued by English courts (a plot hatched in the mid-1700s by Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden a prominent UK justice at the time) were remarkably similar to the FISA warrants of today, sharing the same two crucial problems -- the assumption that everyone might be a criminal without evidence and a lack of accountability/oversight.  And the king, for all his powers, was arguably no more powerful that President Obama is today, in many regards.
Founding Fathers
The Founding Fathers rebellion from England a decade after the colonial nationalist power stepped up its mass warrants. [Image Source:]

The NSA has admitted to violating the law "accidentally" thousands of times a year. Agents have spied on former lovers.  And documents show the last two Presidents have spied on political rivals (including Quakers and Occupy Wall Street activists).  And yet despite that, it refuses to give Congress full information on its classified spying program.

In fact, it appears the NSA is likely spying on Congress.  The question now becomes whether the NSA's assertion -- that it is the supreme law of the land, above the officials elected by the people and above the Constitution, is correct and whether such a complete surrender of liberty in the name of security is a trade that benefits America. 

Should Americans -- including members of Congress -- pledge blind fealty to the NSA and continue to spend billions in taxes to support its campaign of complete data conquest? 

We The People
There's warring feelings on the relevance of the Constiution in the digital age within both parties.
[Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

Or should Americans -- including the members of Congress -- fight back to uphold the Constitution?

Sources: Sen. "Bernie" Sanders [press release], The New York Times, CNN

Comments     Threshold

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RE: Defund the NSA
By jmanbro on 1/6/2014 11:32:59 AM , Rating: -1
It would be nice if someone in here actually used facts and not just trumped up numbers. Regan tripled, yes tripled the National debt in his 2 terms, and its been going up ever since. Obama's numbers are high, but not if you look at percentages. And this NSA thing, who F****ing cares. it doesn't affect my day to day life. Does it make my world safer or worse. Stop bitching on theoretical possibilities and get a life.

RE: Defund the NSA
By AssBall on 1/6/2014 12:00:27 PM , Rating: 2
Said the sheeple, right before every major governmental revolution in history.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Rott3nHIppi3 on 1/6/2014 12:51:17 PM , Rating: 2
Regan tripled, yes tripled the National debt in his 2 terms, and its been going up ever since. Obama's numbers are high, but not if you look at percentages

Pesky facts... still high! Even as a percentage.

RE: Defund the NSA
By SpartanJet on 1/6/2014 3:30:25 PM , Rating: 1
Yes those pesky facts like the way W pushed the old "ooops we invaded the wrong country" war debt to this current administration. Lets face it the Patriot act which was passed under W is the real start of this downward spiral. Not that president has clean hands, but he certainly has less blame then Bush.

RE: Defund the NSA
By ClownPuncher on 1/6/2014 3:34:22 PM , Rating: 2
No, he doesn't.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Rott3nHIppi3 on 1/7/2014 2:06:13 PM , Rating: 2
eh... I was simply proving the debt is still high, even as a percentage of GDP. You can either follow the chart and agree, or throw out random opinions to argue against (which you clearly chose to do). If the PA was a downward spiral, then how does Obama not share some blame by extending it (and abusing it to some extent)? And the next president will inherit this current mess as well. Regardless, What's your point? Doesn't matter who led before him. Some presidents manage to bring the debt back down. In this specific presidency, it has not.

Now, I realize Obama's low poll numbers and complete mismanagement of the gov't system has got you looking for a scapegoat, but the "Bush's Fault" excuse worked in 2008 (and quite well). It's 2014. Time to take ownership.

RE: Defund the NSA
By nafhan on 1/6/2014 1:28:30 PM , Rating: 3
And this NSA thing, who F****ing cares. it doesn't affect my day to day life.
This attitude right here almost perfectly exemplifies why the NSA has been allowed to do what they are doing, and why the president is defending it. Congrats on being part of the problem.

FYI: historically speaking, once something like this gets to the point where it effects your daily decisions, you're gonna' have a bad day (a REALLY bad day, likely followed by many more bad days).

Does it make my world safer or worse.
Probably not, but they are spending a lot of money on it, anyway. That by itself is another good reason to end these programs.

RE: Defund the NSA
By cyberguyz on 1/6/2014 1:39:34 PM , Rating: 3
So how do you suggest to cure this problem?

Revolt? Look what happened in the last American civil war: The rebels lost.

Vote the president out? Tried that. Problem started with one party, was expanded upon by the next. You think voting the party that introduced the problem will solve it?

Move somewhere that the NSA does not reach? This one has merit, but for the live of me I have no idea where that 'somewhere' is.

The only way to get rid of them is to cut their funding to zero. And I am not envisioning any current or future administration that will do that.

RE: Defund the NSA
By ritualm on 1/6/2014 2:05:02 PM , Rating: 2
Revolt? Look what happened in the last American civil war: The rebels lost.

The rebels didn't lose. The real losers were everyone else.
The only way to get rid of them is to cut their funding to zero.

Do you seriously and truthfully believe that not funding the spy agency entirely will stop the NSA's shenanigans? There are ways to sneak funding into a budget even if the official funding figure is zero, and the best part is these earmarks are frequently swept under the table as far as public awareness is concerned.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Monkey's Uncle on 1/6/2014 3:35:59 PM , Rating: 2
The rebels didn't lose. The real losers were everyone else.

Go back to grade school son - you slept thru your history classes. The history books are tellining something more like confederacy throwing up their hands and saying "Please suh! Don't spank me no mo! Ah'll free all ma slaves suh!".

Yep, slavery. Really big loss there. We are all much worse off for it, right? /sarcasm

RE: Defund the NSA
By ritualm on 1/6/2014 3:50:41 PM , Rating: 2
Read those history books again, kid.

There are no winners in wars, only losers.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Monkey's Uncle on 1/6/2014 4:05:49 PM , Rating: 2
LOL. kid.

I like that. Thanks.

And in your imaginary history textbook, what may I ask do you think the outcome of the American civil war was?

RE: Defund the NSA
By Reclaimer77 on 1/6/2014 4:32:11 PM , Rating: 1
There are no winners in wars, only losers.

That's such an intellectually vacuous cliche feelgood BS line, for shame.

Of course there are winners in wars. Calling someone a kid while viewing the world through the eyes of one is hysterical.

"oooh people die in wars, nobody wins, whaaa whaaaa!"

RE: Defund the NSA
By ritualm on 1/6/2014 6:57:34 PM , Rating: 2
Of course there are winners in wars.

Spoken like a total illiterate, brainwashed neophyte.

Not like it matters at this point. The rich profits handsomely from wars regardless of their outcomes, while the rest of us needlessly die to reinforce their end goals. Then the rich write history books claiming how we won those BS wars.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Reclaimer77 on 1/6/2014 9:45:51 PM , Rating: 1
Yes and "the rich" have never had entire fortunes wiped out from wars either. It's all a conspiracy to keep us stupid "illiterate brainwashed neophytes" in the dark.

And "the rich" write the history books now? I mean really, it seems you rather practice class warfare than discuss war.

When you stated "there are no winners in wars", I just assumed you were making a philosophical bridge. Not that I agree, but at least you would have had two brain cells to rub together. But this rubbish 1% bit? Boo.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Monkey's Uncle on 1/7/2014 10:38:31 AM , Rating: 2
The rich profits handsomely from wars regardless of their outcomes,

So, what is this? You doing a bit of backpedaling there son? Looks to me that there ARE winners in wars after all, huh?

You really shouldn't have dropped out of grade school. Your education is sorely lacking.

I agree with you that a lot of the so-called wars that have been fought (Vietnam, Korean & Iraq - No political leader actually declared these as wars - they were "military Actions") had absolutely nothing to do with the freedom of the United States.

Others like the secession from Britain and the American civil war had a direct and profound bearing on your freedom and the rights you are supposed to have today. Problem is your are stuck with one corrupt governemnt after another getting into power and slowly stripping those rights away from you.

So I will ask you : Do you actually like bending over while the NSA and expanded presidential power reams your butthole for you?

Yes? Make sure you keep lots of KY handy.
No? Then what are you going to do about it?

RE: Defund the NSA
By Chaser on 1/7/2014 3:28:47 PM , Rating: 2
There are no winners in wars, only losers.
After you read then jump on a plane to Israel for instance and remind them of your over-simplistic, pretentious views of war.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Reclaimer77 on 1/7/2014 9:20:38 PM , Rating: 2
Good point. Or skip on over to South Korea and tell them losing the war wouldn't have made a difference to them...

RE: Defund the NSA
By AssBall on 1/6/2014 5:41:30 PM , Rating: 2
The rebels did lose the war, but they ended up getting what they really wanted, lots of reform from years of economic repression from the union states' misgoverning.

You are a simpleton and a poor student of history if you think it was a war about whether or not we should have slavery. That was just nicely worked media propaganda for a war that was almost purely economic in nature.

RE: Defund the NSA
By Reclaimer77 on 1/6/2014 5:18:52 PM , Rating: 2
You think voting the party that introduced the problem will solve it?

Excuse me but both parties supported the wars, the TSA, the Patriot Act and everything else, almost unanimously. The voters of this country damn sure supported it, because they were scared out of their minds after seeing those Towers fall and the devastation organized terrorism could do in America.

This is why nearly everything passed under Bush had an expiration date and needed a vote to be extended. So that in the future, when Americans were safe, we could eliminate some of these programs.

So the real question is, why didn't Obama? Especially after Osama Bin Laden was taken out.

Move somewhere that the NSA does not reach?

Well that place was supposed to be here. The NSA has a charter to spy on others, but it's illegal to spy on US citizens.

Cutting funding, yeah, that's an idea. But how about we start throwing people in jail who broke the law?

RE: Defund the NSA
By nafhan on 1/6/2014 5:41:59 PM , Rating: 2
The only way to get rid of them is to cut their funding to zero.
I think this a great idea, but pretty limited and likely to be ineffective long term. If we just cut the funding for the NSA and leave the legal environment as is, the CIA or some new group will eventually start doing the same type of stuff to us.

I'd say:
--New laws specifically forbidding domestic spying
--More transparency regarding action against US citizens
--Either dissolution or serious reorganization of the NSA
--Some time in the slammer - possibly for treason - for those currently responsible for this mess

An executive order absolving Snowden would also be a nice gesture.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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