No, You Still Can’t Trust What the NSA Says

wash-post-alexanderOne of the most incendiary revelations from the documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden suggests that the NSA’s mass collection of phone records isn’t confined to the United States. Reports in Le Monde (10/21/13) and El Mundo (10/28/13) say the NSA is involved in collecting such data in France and Spain, too–millions of phone records in a one-month period from December 2012 to January 2013.

Those revelations sparked outrage across Europe. But then another storyline emerged: According to anonymous sources, those reports were wrong, the result of Snowden and/or the journalists writing the stories misunderstanding the documents. According to this new line, the NSA was merely receiving the phone call information from those countries. 

That was the line in a Wall Street Journal article (10/29/13):

Millions of phone records at the center of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the U.S. by European intelligence services–not collected by the NSA, upending a furor that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations.

Gen. Keith Alexander (photo: DoD/Cherie Cullen)

Gen. Keith Alexander (photo: DoD/Cherie Cullen)

The We- Didn’t- Do- It defense was seemingly confirmed by NSA chief Keith Alexander, who testified before the House Intelligence Committee. As the Washington Post reported it (10/30/13)

The director of the National Security Agency on Tuesday dismissed as “completely false” reports that his agency swept up millions of phone records of European citizens, and he revealed that data collected by NATO allies were shared with the United States.

Gen. Keith Alexander said foreign intelligence services collected phone records in war zones and other areas outside their borders and provided them to the spy agency–an operation that was misunderstood by French and Spanish newspapers that reported that the NSA was conducting surveillance in their countries.

 “This is not information that we collected on European citizens,” Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee. “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”

The Post granted anonymity to some government officials to talk about their frustration: 

The failure of the French government to challenge a report in Le Monde that accused the NSA of conducting a widespread surveillance effort on French soil has vexed the Obama administration, which has felt hamstrung to respond, the official said. “We have wrestled with how you correct a story that’s wrong about classified operations–particularly operations that are not yours.”

Between the anonymous sources and Alexander’s testimony, some reporters seemed to think that the upshot was that the Snowden reporting was misleading. USA Today (10/30/13) reported that Alexander’s comments

appeared to confirm a report Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous U.S. officials, that intelligence agencies in France and Spain cooperated with NSA efforts in those countries.

But look closely at what Alexander is saying. As Marcy Wheeler  (Emptywheel, 10/29/13) points out, Alexander’s comment was this: 

The sources of the metadata include data legally collected by NSA under its various authorities as well as data provided to NSA by foreign partners. To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations. 

In plain English, “data legally collected by NSA” and ” information that we and our NATO allies have collected” does not mean the NSA was not involved in collecting this data. 

As Glenn Greenwald (10/30/13) wrote in response to the criticisms of his work:

The fact some of this data is collected by virtue of cooperation with a country’s own intelligence service does not contradict our reporting. To the contrary: The secret cooperation between some European intelligence agencies and the NSA has been a featured part of our reporting from the start. 

It is dangerous to grant government sources anonymity in this context, since it is very difficult to find a reason one should believe what they’re saying. It’s equally troubling that anyone would trust the word of NSA director Keith Alexander, who has lied about some of the very metadata collection programs in question. But as is too often the case in elite US journalism, government officials are almost always considered  inherently trustworthy–even when the record shows you shouldn’t believe what they’re saying. 

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.