- Alex Abdostaff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Despite assurances from President Obama, the scandal around the National Security Agency continues to grow. The Guardian reports the NSA has routinely passed raw intelligence to Israel about U.S. citizens. “The NSA was sharing what they call raw signals intelligence, which includes things like who you are calling and when you are calling, the content of your phone call, the text of your emails, your text messages, your chat messages,” says Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It sounds like all of that was handed over.” Abdo also discusses the ACLU’s successful fight to force the government to declassify documents that show the NSA wrongly put 16,000 American phone numbers on an “alert list.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday the National Security Agency routinely has passed raw intelligence to Israel without first removing details about U.S. citizens. Documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of a secret intelligence-sharing agreement between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart, that shows the U.S. government handed over intercepted communications containing phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens. The agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis.
Meanwhile, newly declassified documents show the NSA wrongly put 16,000 phone numbers on an “alert list” so their incoming calls could be monitored in violation of court-ordered privacy protections.
AMY GOODMAN: When the NSA notified the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about the error, Judge Reggie Walton of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court wrote, quote, “The court is exceptionally concerned about what appears to be a flagrant violation of its order in this matter.” The documents were declassified after a long fight with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union that filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit two years ago.
In other NSA news, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is facing pressure at home to cancel an upcoming state visit to the White House after documents leaked by Snowden revealed the NSA had hacked into the computer networks of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras. On Wednesday, President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, met with Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto in an attempt to smooth relations between the countries.
To talk more about all of these latest developments, we’re joined by Alex Abdo. He is staff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Alex, let’s take these in order. The information about the NSA, the U.S. intelligence agency, handing over raw data that it’s collected—legally or illegally, I think remains to be determined—to Israel, can you explain what’s taken place?
ALEX ABDO: It’s difficult to explain. And it’s, you know, of course, not surprising that the NSA is sharing foreign intelligence with our intelligence partners, but what’s troubling is that along with the foreign intelligence is information about innocent Americans that hasn’t been taken out of the data that’s being shared with our intelligence partners. And it’s troubling for a couple of reasons, the first of which, we haven’t known about this, and this may have been going on for years, and the second of which, there’s no avenue for Americans, innocent Americans who are swept up into these dragnets and have their information handed over to our intelligence partners, to stop that flow of information, to assert their rights and prevent it. So this has been going on for some time, it seems, and it raises new questions about the NSA’s—the extent to which we should trust the NSA with information, very sensitive, about innocent Americans.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what limitations were placed on the information that was—that was handed over to the Israelis, in terms of what they could do with it or how long they could hold it?
ALEX ABDO: Well, based on the documents that were released, it seems as though we basically had a “trust us” regime in place for the sharing of data with Israel. And that’s cold comfort, I think, to the potentially thousands or millions of Americans who find their way into these international surveillance dragnets of the NSA. But there’s simply no way of knowing right now how many Americans were affected, how the information was used, or what other measures the NSA may have taken or may not have taken to protect our privacy.
AMY GOODMAN: And what the information was that was handed over, is it the actual—is it the metadata of phone calls, who you called, when you called them? Is it the actual phone call?
ALEX ABDO: It sounds as though it was all of that. The NSA was sharing what they call raw signals intelligence, which includes things like who you’re calling and when you’re calling, but also the content of your phone calls, the text of your emails, your text messages, your chat messages. It sounds as though all of that was handed over in what they call this raw intelligence.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was targeted?
ALEX ABDO: It’s hard to say. It sounds as though the information sharing was indiscriminate, that they handed over large amounts of information without actually targeting at the outset, and allowing the Israeli analog to the NSA to then scour this information for what was useful. And like I said, they, you know, apparently had in place a clause asking Israel not to abuse this information, but there really didn’t seem to be any legally enforceable way to prevent Americans’ privacy from being violated in the course of this intelligence sharing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, the documents you have referred to appear between 2006 and 2009, which would be the tail end of the Bush administration, but your battle to get access to the documents occurred during the Obama administration. Can you talk about that battle to be able to get these documents released?
ALEX ABDO: Sure. In 2011, two senators, Senators Wyden and Udall, started raising red flags, warnings to America about a secret interpretation that the government was relying on to collect an extraordinary amount of information about innocent Americans. And on the heels of that discussion, the ACLU and other organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed requests with the government for these secret interpretations of law. And the Obama administration, which had come into power on a promise of a new era of transparency, fought bitterly to keep these documents secret for years. And they were—it’s actually a bit ironic. In the midst of the disclosures, Obama was in the course of defending very vigorously in court extreme secrecy about these very same documents that were released two days ago. So, it’s—the secrecy was troubling. The fact that they’re now public is a good first step toward greater transparency, but this is information that did not come easily out of the Obama administration.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the documents released was a March 2nd, 2009, court order written by Judge Reggie Walton, now the presiding judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Walton writes of the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, quote, “To approve such a program, the Court must have every confidence that the government is doing its utmost to ensure that those responsible for implementation fully comply with the Court’s orders. The Court no longer has such confidence.” This is the judge.
ALEX ABDO: This is extremely troubling, and it should be very disturbing. We have trusted for years a secret and one-sided judicial process to safeguard Americans’ right to privacy when it comes to NSA surveillance. And the disclosures over the past few months have confirmed that we shouldn’t trust that system to safeguard our right to privacy. And at the end of the day, the battle is between a system in which the NSA is required to go to court to engage in lawful surveillance versus the system that it has now, where it rarely has to go to court to spy even on innocent Americans. And we shouldn’t have confidence in that system, and now we know that there are even more reasons than we suspected not to have confidence in the system. But at the end of the day, that’s the debate, whether the NSA, when it wants to spy on Americans, should be forced to go to a court to justify that spying. The NSA hasn’t been doing that for years, and we need to change that, to force the NSA to justify its surveillance in court.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Of course, President Obama has been justifying that surveillance. I want to turn to a clip from him speaking last month about the leaks by Edward Snowden.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about President Obama’s claim that the checks are in place?
ALEX ABDO: Well, I think it’s quite obvious now that the checks are not in place, that the very authorities that the government says are carefully overseen by the secret court in D.C. and by regulators within the intelligence communities are failing, that there are violations of even these very permissive rules. But at the end—you know, a core problem is not just that there are violations, but that the law authorizes an extraordinary amount of surveillance in the first place. And that underlying authorization is far too broad. It allows the NSA to engage in a form of dragnet surveillance of even Americans’ communications, that’s not tied to a particular investigation. It’s not tied to a particular terrorist plot that the NSA is trying to stop. That, I think, is the most troubling aspect of these revelations, is that these powers are simply too broad, to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, responded to critics who have accused Internet companies of working with the NSA. During an interview at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, she was asked why tech companies had not simply decided to tell the public more about what the NSA was doing.
MARISSA MAYER: We can’t talk about those things.
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: Why?
MARISSA MAYER: Because they’re classified.
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: What is—I mean, why?
MARISSA MAYER: And so—so, I mean—just to—
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: Let’s just say, look, right now you were just to tell us the truth about what’s going on, the stuff that’s classified, like what do you think would happen to you?
MARISSA MAYER: I mean, releasing classified information is treason.
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: And then what happens?
MARISSA MAYER: Just generally, and you—you know, incarcerated.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Marissa Mayer. She is the head of Yahoo. Alex Abdo?
ALEX ABDO: You know, Ms. Mayer is correct that there are extraordinary limits on what these companies can say, but it’s not correct to say that they can’t be doing more to protect the privacy of their users. There are a number of steps that these companies can take and should take, and Yahoo recently took one of those steps in joining Google and Microsoft in pushing the secret court in D.C. to allow them to say more about the government surveillance. Those companies want to be able to tell the public how many Americans are affected by the government’s surveillance, the numbers of court orders they get to turn over this information, and, very generally, the type of information they’re being asked to turn over. That’s all information that the government should allow these companies to disclose. It would allow Americans to better understand the surveillance that’s taking place in our name, and it would allow us to make a decision for ourselves whether the surveillance is lawful and whether it’s necessary.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Not only that, but I think there is a—as I’ve said before on this show, there is a conflict between the economic needs of these companies, because they’re all global companies, and no matter what happens in the United States, this is going to affect their businesses in other parts of the world as more and more countries decide you can’t trust American technology companies to use their search engines or use their products if they are allowing the government to serveil not only American citizens, but people around the world, so that it seems to me there’s a need to meet the needs of their own shareholders, the business interests of the company, to oppose these kind of government policies.
ALEX ABDO: I think that’s right. We’re putting our American companies at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to their business. They’re being forced to compete with companies outside the U.S. that aren’t receiving these NSA surveillance orders. But it’s important to note, too, that these companies can do more to protect the privacy of their consumers, even when they are not allowed to talk about the surveillance of the NSA. They can put in place technological fixes that allow users to trust their services more. And we’re starting to see that type of a response by the tech industry. They’re starting to compete over privacy. One of Microsoft’s—for example, its new campaigns is “Don’t get Scroogled.” It’s their way of competing against Google’s skimming of our emails for ad tracking. And as Americans, I think, come to appreciate the value of our privacy and the vastness of the information we trust with these companies, they’ll come to demand greater assurances from the Googles and the Microsofts and the Yahoos.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, and just end with what surprised you most by all of these revelations that have come out from Ed Snowden. I mean, the president says this debate has—would have happened anyway. You’re a longtime—and certainly the ACLU has been deeply concerned about civil liberties issues. Would it have happened anyway? And what have you found most shocking in the last few months?
ALEX ABDO: I don’t think this transparency would have happened. This is an involuntary debate that the administration is now welcoming after the fact, and it’s a long overdue one. And one of the things that has shocked me the most, I think, is, in reading these documents, to see how much information is kept secret that should never have been kept secret in the first place. Americans deserve to be a part of this conversation, but they’re being kept out of it by unnecessary overclassification of this information.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much, Alex Abdo, staff attorney at the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.