We live in a time of too many words. Remember Bruce Springsteen’s song “57 Channels (And Nothings On)?” Seems quaint now, doesn’t it? Today we have 100 million websites and often, nothing’s on. This phenomenon gives rise to one of my favorite phrases about our times: “Words without content.” Our planet is now full of them. And so we come to today’s quite verbose disclosure by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Even the title is, ahem, a bit wordy.
“ODNI Releases Statistical Transparency Report Regarding Use of National Security Authorities.”
Today’s report, appropriately published on the “IC On the Record” Tumblr page, denotes how many times the intelligence community spied on people using the kinds of techniques that Edward Snowden exposed. Please don’t go read it. It’ll hurt your eyes. The box score, if I could call it that, is 1,767 FISA Orders in 2013, 19,212 National Security Letters, and a few hundred other related intrusions. The final score is U.S. government 100, you 0.
My favorite part is the little heart at the bottom of the post. You know our government is getting serious about civil liberties when it puts spy statistics on a tumblr page with a little heart on it.
But what do those numbers mean? Well, I could play journalist for you right now and mention that there were 16,511 National Security Letters sent in 2011 and 15,229 in 2012, meaning there was a jump in 2013. If I were really ambitious, I might even tell you there was a nearly 25 percent jump! But that would be words without content, because it doesn’t mean much. Perhaps the entire jump was the result of one really intense case, for example? Or, of one corrupt FBI agent? Who knows? Here, I’ll let IC on the Record try to clear things up for you.
Today we are reporting (1) the total number of NSLs issued for all persons, and (2) the total number of requests for information contained within those NSLs. For example, one NSL seeking subscriber information from one provider may identify three e-mail addresses, all of which are relevant to the same pending investigation and each is considered a “request.”
We are reporting the annual number of requests rather than “targets” for multiple reasons. First, the FBI’s systems are configured to comply with Congressional reporting requirements, which do not require the FBI to track the number of individuals or organizations that are the subject of an NSL.
Even if the FBI systems were configured differently, it would still be difficult to identify the number of specific individuals or organizations that are the subjects of NSLs. One reason for this is that the subscriber information returned to the FBI in response to an NSL may identify, for example, one subscriber for three accounts or it may identify different subscribers for each account. In some cases this occurs because the identification information provided by the subscriber to the provider may not be true.
For example, a subscriber may use a fictitious name or alias when creating the account. Thus, in many instances, the FBI never identifies the actual subscriber of a facility. In other cases this occurs because individual subscribers may identify themselves differently for each account, e.g., inclusion of middle name, middle initial, etc., when creating an account.
Sorry for making your eyes bleed (my addition).
NSLs allow federal law enforcement to demand certain kind of data *about* content from phone calls, Internet activity, and so on. Telecom firms that receive them must tell the FBI every website visited, every telephone number dialed, every email address used in the “to:” field, and so on. NSLs are not reviewed by a judge before they are issued. NSLs often contain non-disclosure language that prevents the recipient from discussing the letter in public. In other words, they are serious business. Read a little, and you will find out that the American Civil Liberties Union has unearthed plenty of evidence that these all-powerful, not-subject-to-checks-and-balances investigative tools are ripe for abuse. So are FISA orders, so-called 702 letters, etc.
Back to my original point. The intelligence community has responded to the surveillance scandal by launching a Tumblr page full of meaningless numbers and even more meaningless footnote-like paragraphs. There’s no mention of why these orders were issued, what the outcome was, how they were indispensable in stopping a terrorist act, or any other shred of information that makes them meaningful.
Words without content.
The point is, of course, that folks in the administration will be able to say, “Hey, we are engaging in record-breaking transparency! We even have a Tumblr page where we reveal everything we do!” That’ll turn out to be a solid answer to a question at a press conference or in a debate, and folks will move on.
Saying everything and nothing at the same time.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Surpreme Court, in a rare moment of unanimity, told local cops to cut it out. No, you can’t just rifle through folks’ cell phones any time you want, the court wrote. Sometimes, words do have important content. Let’s hope for more of those from the wise men and women in the robes, demanding meaningful words from the U.S. intelligence community.