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Jun 21 2012

The Obama Administration’s Weird Definition of Privacy

My former colleague Spencer Ackerman got his hands on a deeply ironic letter written by the NSA to two senators, in which the agency claims that they can’t tell them how many people have been targeted for surveillance because that would violate the privacy of those who were targeted. I wish I was kidding.

The surveillance experts at the National Security Agency won’t tell two powerful United States Senators how many Americans have had their communications picked up by the agency as part of its sweeping new counterterrorism powers. The reason: it would violate your privacy to say so.

That claim comes in a short letter sent Monday to civil libertarian Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall. The two members of the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee asked the NSA a simple question last month: under the broad powers granted in 2008′s expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, how many persons inside the United States have been spied upon by the NSA?

The query bounced around the intelligence bureaucracy until it reached I. Charles McCullough, the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the nominal head of the 16 U.S. spy agencies. In a letter acquired by Danger Room, McCullough told the senators that the NSA inspector general “and NSA leadership agreed that an IG review of the sort suggested would further violate the privacy of U.S. persons,” McCullough wrote.

See, spying on Americans without a warrant does not violate their privacy, but telling the oversight committee how many they’ve spied on without a warrant does. I’m glad they cleared that up.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    theschwa

    So telling a NUMBER would violate an individual’s privacy? Even though no names, dates, places, SSNs, DOBs, addresses, employers, or relatives are disclosed, just telling the number would obviously allows us to extrapolate who was under surveillance.

  2. 2
    richardelguru

    @theschwa
    It would if the number is equal to the population count.

  3. 3
    imrryr

    I can’t decide if this is hilarious or depressing.

  4. 4
    peicurmudgeon

    perhasp we should just assume that between 300 and 320 million American have been spied upon, as well as 35 million Canadians and 25 million Mexicans.

  5. 5
    peicurmudgeon

    Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, was donated an armed response truck last year. That is, the truck was donated, the equipment and training was all at the expense of the city. A year later, they have 1 full time and 1 part time officer who are licensed to drive a vehicle with air brakes. We average 1 murder every several years and I can remember a single instance in the past 30 years that may possibly required a major response. So far the truck has been used in parades and a couple of PR events.

  6. 6
    theschwa

    I think peicurmudgeon’s comments (#5) was meant for the SWAT/militarization of police thread.

  7. 7
    unbound

    I think #2 above is the likely reason that they can’t release the numbers. Everyone has technically been spied on with the approach used.

  8. 8
    naturalcynic

    Jaw,meet floor. Head, meet desk. Head joins jaw on floor. Head bounces into double palms.

  9. 9
    slc1

    The question is, will those two senators take it lying down or will they go to the mat with the NSA? History tells me that they will do an el foldo.

  10. 10
    caseloweraz

    Not only hypocritical but illogical, as pointed out in comment #1. Perhaps this explains the weird way documents are often redacted. (For example, the book by Valerie Plame Wilson.)

  11. 11
    ginseng

    “would further violate the privacy of U.S. persons”

    He used “further” which means they are already violating their privacy and don’t want to exacerbate the violation, I guess?

  1. 12
    Logic vs The Government - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - City-Data Forum

    [...] vs The Government The Obama Administration’s Weird Definition of Privacy | Dispatches from the Culture Wars It's nice to know that we won't know how many of our fellow Americans are being surveyed by the [...]

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