NSA is quiet about Syria SNAFU

Marcy Wheeler has a post describing how when the NSA tried to spy on Syria, they made a mistake that shut down the internet.  The hackers at NSA made a joke saying “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”

Marcy asks about the news reports of the internet shutdown since it was reported that it was the Syrian government that had shut down the internet.  Marcy asks “Were they making stuff up, unable to determine what really happened, or just repeating something US officials told them?”

My guess is that the NSA kept their SNAFU quiet and that US officials told reporters whatever they wanted to at the time. 

It is also important to note that this is essentially another Snowden “leak” as the article explains that “This is the first time the claim has been revealed.”

So as to the question of whether the government knew what happened at NSA and kept it quiet to reporters who had already heard other reports that the Syrian government had shut down the internet in the wake of Arab Spring protests? Entirely plausible.

But remember that this is not the first time (nor likely the last) that the government has kept things from the public, or other branches of government.

Remember that this is an interview with Edward Snowden, and defenders of the NSA claim that there is extensive oversight by Congress, the Executive branch and the Courts.

President Obama June 7, 2013

emphasis mine

Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified, but they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program.

With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad, bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. And so I think at the outset, it’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.

continued

This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress but by the FISA Court, a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them and that they’re — it’s being out consistent with the Constitution and rule of law. 

Obama also mentioned that (emphasis mine)

I think, on balance, we — you know, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about. But again, this — these programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. And if there are members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up.
And we’re happy to have that debate.

But Obama knew full well that Washington Post

 The senators briefed on these programs couldn’t speak about them. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) were reduced to spending years trying to hint at the existence of programs they weren’t able to actually tell anyone about. Only now can anyone see what it is they were trying to tell us. 

We have seen this again since the Snowden revelations, two prominent examples being the revelation that NSA (and CIA) spied on Angela Merkel’s phone and the CIA removing documents from the Senate Intelligence Committee staff working on the Torture Report.  Senator Dianne Feinstein has said publicly that these were two issues she was not made aware of as Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Feinstein Statement on the Committee’s study on the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program

The CIA denies removing the documents, then first blames IT personnel, and then the WH denies giving the order. (emphasis mine)

In May of 2010, the committee staff noticed that [certain] documents that had been provided for the committee’s review were no longer accessible. Staff approached the CIA personnel at the offsite location, who initially denied that documents had been removed. CIA personnel then blamed information technology personnel, who were almost all contractors, for removing the documents themselves without direction or authority. And then the CIA stated that the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House. When the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order.

Then comes the admission (emphasis mine)

After a series of meetings, I learned that on two occasions, CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee.

Then 4 months later comes the apology emphasis mine

An internal CIA investigation confirmed allegations that agency personnel improperly intruded into a protected database used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff to compile a scathing report on the agency’s detention and interrogation program, prompting bipartisan outrage and at least two calls for spy chief John Brennan to resign.

(Additionally we learned from Senator Wyden’s questions that the CFAA applies to the CIA)

CFAA Reform (EFF)

Fix the CFAA

Aaron’s Law (Aaron Swartz)

The Law that is Hell on Hackers (ABA Journal)

Congress and the White House was not told that NSA was spying on Merkel’s phone

the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed. Therefore our oversight needs to be strengthened and increased.

NSA denies telling Obama about spying on Merkel

the document, from 2009, appeared to contain the names of 122 world leaders

Did Obama know about spying on Merkel or not?

report says Obama was briefed (emphasis mine)

 the White House refused to comment on an overnight report in the German tabloid Bild, which alleged that Obama was personally briefed about by the operation to target Merkel’s phone by the NSA’s director, Keith Alexander, and allowed it to continue.

report says Obama had not previously known (emphasis mine)

That appeared to conflict with a second report, in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. It said that when Obama spoke to Merkel over the phone on Wednesday, he assured the German leader he had not previously known her phone had been monitored.

So who knew before Snowden mentioned it in the interview that it was the NSA that shut down Syria’s internet accidentally while trying to implant devices to monitor traffic?  I don’t know.  But as I have shown this is not the first time that there have been denials even within a government, even among strong supporters like Dianne Feinstein is with the intelligence agencies.

Marcy asks “Were they making stuff up, unable to determine what really happened, or just repeating something US officials told them?”

I think the answer is that NSA told no one what happened, and the Administration ran with the rumors that were already out there and plausible.  

Read Marcy’s blog posts at Emptywheel

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