Abuse Without Oversight

NSA logoby Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger.”

“Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ.”

– Wm. Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Sc. 3

Shakespeare had a lot to say about human nature. He was particularly fond of addressing jealousy. Indeed, jealousy is the axis around which his play Othello revolves although it features prominently in some of his other works as well. He so profoundly understood human nature, one has to wonder what he would make of the NSA surveillance state. To go to the other end of the literary scale, but to a no less valid observation and aspirational goal, Spiderman’s prime operating principle is a lesson he learned both directly from and from the death of the character of his uncle, Ben Parker. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Not all people behave responsibly, let alone consistently responsible. This is why we build systems that allegedly contain oversight mechanisms – to prevent, catch and rectify irresponsible behavior as quickly as possible. When these systems fail, we must evaluate the wisdom of creating such a power to begin with.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. Which brings us to the NSA’s total information awareness strategy, their employees and policies for dealing with abusive employees and the tools to implement this ongoing violation of our 4th Amendment right “to be secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. An NSA employee was found to have twice collected communications of an American and had been secretly intercepting the phone calls of nine foreign women for six years (1998-2003) without ever being detected by his managers. The consequences of this criminal abuse of power upon discovery?

Nothing of substance.

In fact, no one might have ever known about this unauthorised abuse of the NSA’s surveillance tools.  One of the women being spied upon, who also happened to be a US government employee he was having a sexual relationship with, complained to a colleague that she suspected the man was listening to her calls. But for that, this criminal abuse might still be going on.

The way the public found out about it was that this was one of a dozen cases of abuse documented in a letter from the NSA’s Inspector General Dr. George Ellard to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who as ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary had asked for a breakdown of cases in which the agency’s powerful surveillance apparatus was deliberately abused by staff. Other abuses cited include:

  • A member of the US military who, on the first day he gained access to the surveillance system, used it to spy on six email addresses belonging to former girlfriends.
  • In 2011, an NSA employee based abroad admitted during a lie-detector case that he had obtained details about his girlfriend’s telephone calls “out of curiosity”.
  • In 2005, an NSA employee admitted to obtaining his partner’s phone data to determine whether she was “involved” with any foreign government officials.
  • In another instance, a female NSA employee – suspecting he “had been unfaithful” – said she listened to calls on an unknown foreign telephone number she discovered stored on her partner’s cell phone.
  • In 2011, a female employee of the agency confessed that she had obtained information about the phone of “her foreign-national boyfriend and other foreign nationals”. She later told investigators she often used the NSA’s surveillance tools to investigate the phone numbers of people she met socially, to ensure they were “not shady characters”. This was discovered only discovered during an investigation of an ancillary matter.

As the Bard asked in The Comedy of Errors, “How many fond fools serve mad jealousy?” More than one it would seem.  The letter only lists cases that were investigated and later “substantiated” by the IG’s office of the NSA. Without question though, this raises the very real possibility that there are many more cases that go undetected. As reported by Paul Lewis in The Guardian, in a full quarter of the cases cited, “the NSA only found out about the misconduct after the employee confessed.” This is particularly important when you know that the IG of the NSA is appointed by the Director of the NSA and is answerable only to that office. Consider this in contrast to the IG of the CIA, who has been an independent office since 1989.  As described on the CIA’s website:

The IG is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and may only be removed from office by the president.  The IG’s authorities and responsibilities are provided in 50 U.S.C. §403q.  Although the IG reports to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the statute creates obligations and responsibilities to both the Director and to the Congress.”

Also consider that the letter revealed “limited disciplinary action taken against NSA staff found to have abused the system. In seven cases, individuals guilty of abusing their powers resigned or retired before disciplinary action could be taken. Two civilian employees kept their jobs – and, it appears, their security clearance – and escaped with only a written warning after they were found to have conducted unauthorised interceptions.

The abuses – technically breaches of the law – did not result in a single prosecution, even though more than half of the cases were referred to the Department of Justice. The DoJ did not respond to a request for information about why no charges were brought.”

Consider too that the NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, referred to the twelve cases in testimony to a congressional hearing last Thursday where he told senators on the intelligence committee that abuse of the NSA’s powerful monitoring tools were “with very rare exception” unintentional mistakes.  Gen. Alexander went on to say that “The press claimed evidence of thousands of privacy violations. This is false and misleading.  According to NSA’s independent inspector general, there have been only twelve substantiated case of willful violation over ten years. Essentially, one per year.” To which he added, “Today, NSA has a privacy compliance program any leader of a large, complex organization would be proud of.”

Keep in mind that this is shortly after the NSA sent out a letter to all of its employees and affiliates including contractors – that they emphasized could and should be printed and shared with family, friends and colleagues – intended to reassure them that the NSA is “not really the abusive and unchecked spying agency engaged in illegal activity that someone reading former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures might think it happens to be.”  Sent on September 13 and  signed by NSA Director Alexander and NSA Deputy Director John Inglis, the letter begins, “We are writing to you, our extended NSA/CSS family, in light of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by a former contractor employee.” To further ease minds clearly in need of assurances, the letter further states that “We want to put the information you are reading and hearing about in the press into context and reassure you that this Agency and its workforce are deserving and appreciative of your support. [. . .] Some media outlets have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA/CSS—your loved one(s). It has been discouraging to see how our Agency frequently has been portrayed in the news as more of a rogue element than a national treasure.”

Salve is usually applied to an area of irritation, one that is often indicative of a larger ailment.

However, being that the small number cases depicted in the inspector general’s rather self-serving letter to Sen. Grassley could betray a far larger number abuses that NSA managers never uncovered and that these unpunished bright line abuses of civil rights and the Constitution were preceded by what can only be described accurately as NSA apologist propaganda designed to quash the fears of prosecution those who aid the NSA in breaking the law might rightfully have?

I think it is high time for an independent IG to oversee the the NSA. To that end, I strongly suggest reading the sourced item below from The Washington Post.

I also think it’s fair to say the NSA has gone way past the point of being able to claim they are a “national treasure” and well into the factual territory of being a national disgrace.

What do you think?

Source: The Guardian. The Dissenter, The Washington Post. CIA.gov

~ submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

47 thoughts on “Abuse Without Oversight”

  1. Great tweet, in light of recent reports about the collaborative work of Scahill and Greenwald:

    jeremy scahill ‏@jeremyscahill 2h

    Just arrived at @ggreenwald’s Treason Chic lair. We’re singing The Internationale & gazing at photos of Chomsky & Hamas

  2. Snowden’s Statement to European Parliamentary Committee on ‘Greatest Human Rights Challenge of Our Time’

    By: Kevin Gosztola Monday September 30, 2013 1:00 pm


    While it was Radack’s time to speak to the committee, she read a statement from Snowden, but, before beginning she acknowledged two “unsung heroes” in Snowden’s “harrowing saga,” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, who she said had rescued him from Hong Kong, helped him obtain asylum and remained at his side at great personal risk to herself.

    “They have been not just stops on the 21st Century version of the Underground Railroad, which liberates information from the shackles of security and transports it into the disinfecting sunlight of freedom,” Radack declared. “They have been the guardian shepherds who have kept him safe during this difficult journey.”

    She added, “It’s a tragic irony that in an effort to preserve your liberties and mine they all have given up so many liberties of their own.” The treatment they have experienced and the “example being made of them and all other whistleblowers is the ultimate chilling effect on speech.”

    Radack then read the following statement aloud to the committee and the audience there to hear testimony. (To hear it read, click on the above player. (via link))

    “I thank the European Parliament and the LIBE Committee for taking up the challenge of mass surveillance. The surveillance of whole populations rather than individuals threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time. The success of economies in developing nations relies increasingly on their creative output and if that success is to continue we must remember that creativity is the product of curiosity, which in turn is the product of privacy.

    A culture of secrecy has denied our societies the opportunity to determine the appropriate balance between the human right of privacy and governmental interest in investigation.

    These are not decisions that should be made for the people but only by the people after full informed and fearless debate. Yet public debate is not possible without public knowledge and in my country the cost for one in my position of returning public knowledge to public hands has been persecution and exile.

    If we are to enjoy such debates in the future, we cannot rely on individual sacrifice. We must create better channels for people of conscience to inform not only trusted agents of the government but independent representatives outside of the government.

    When I began my work, it was with the sole intention of making possible the debate we see occurring here in this body and in many other bodies around the world.

    Today we see legislative bodies forming new committees, calling for investigations and proposing new solutions for modern problems. We see emboldened courts that are no longer afraid to consider critical questions of national security. We see brave executives remembering that if a public is prevented from knowing how they are being governed the necessary result is that they are no longer self-governing. And we see the public reclaiming an equal seat at the table of government.

    The work of a generation is beginning here with your hearings and you have the full measure of my gratitude and support.”



    Kevin Gosztola ‏@kgosztola 1h
    Drake: We have “undersight committees” in legislature. They’re completely compromised. Influenced by staggering amounts of $ #EUinquiry
    Retweeted by Jesselyn Radack

  3. Good article….

    Instead of a national threat it should be named a national treat….. But I say…. They say… Just get the H outta here….

  4. Gene: …”when a person’s motivation is purely emotional like jealousy? It makes them more prone to make mistakes and, ergo, more apt to get caught. I’m more worried about those who would commit abuses of this power out of the desire for political or economic gain.”

    and like comments. That’s an astute observation.

    Also the John Lewis comment; yes, I got whiplash from that, that was pretty amazing. I’d really like to know that story.

  5. Great analysis, Gene. We put limits on power because we know it will be abused. When the NSA program began, everyone in authority would have to have known that employees would access information for unauthorized purposes. If that is not grounds for automatic termination, the first line of oversight fails. I have no doubt that the abuses you have described have occurred much more frequently than has been acknowledged.

  6. Oops typo: ( I know who Rand Paul is, but isn’t that other guy one of those aholes that helped cover up JFK’s murder?)

  7. OS,

    That was indeed exactly what I was thinking vis a vis Rep. John Lewis’ abrupt about face the other day.

  8. I suspect that many politicians on the national scene are kept in line by this very thing. It is a model created by that old closet queen, J. Edgar Hoover.

  9. Blouise,

    I’m willing to bet the word “exponential” comes up in relationship to that number.

  10. Gene,

    Very well done! I have nothing to add except I would like to see how the upsurge in identity theft numbers coincides with NSA’s expansion (chuckle, chuckle … but I’m not really kidding)

  11. Bob K.,

    I thought so and I also thought this: when a person’s motivation is purely emotional like jealousy? It makes them more prone to make mistakes and, ergo, more apt to get caught. I’m more worried about those who would commit abuses of this power out of the desire for political or economic gain. Those kind of bad actors are going to be much more methodical, less prone to mistakes, and may never get caught without better oversight and substantive accountability. Had jealousy not clouded Othello’s mind? He’d have likely seen through Iago’s betrayal instantly and killed him on the spot, making for the shortest Shakespeare play in history.

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