Intelligence Reports Raise Questions About Obama Administration Surveillance

At the end of April, the Director of National Intelligence released a report titled Statistical Transparency Report Regarding Use of National Security Authorities. The report, which is mandated by statute, conveys basic data about the intelligence community’s use of the FISA process and other intelligence-gathering techniques.

Like most such reports, it raises more questions than it answers. It describes the National Security Agency’s sweeping up of international electronic communications, and describes minimization procedures that are designed to keep confidential the identities of Americans whose communications are caught up in the dragnet. It also describes the unmasking procedures whereby bureaucrats can be allowed to identify “U.S. persons.”

The report indicates that in 2016, there were 5,288 occasions when some or all of the database of international communications collected by NSA under Section 702 of FISA was searched to find information on a known U.S. person, using, e.g., his email address or phone number as an identifier. Click to enlarge:

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Note that the increase in 2016 over 2015 was modest.

The next chart is interesting, too. It shows the number of queries “concerning a known U.S. person” of unminimized (i.e., identities of American citizens have not been redacted) metadata information:

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Here, we see a rapidly increasing pattern of searches. The number more than tripled between 2013 and 2016, the election year when the Obama administration is suspected of spying on Trump associates.

The DNI’s report explains the rules that govern the unmasking of American citizens at the request of another branch of the federal bureaucracy:

Recipients of NSA‘s classified reports, such as other Federal agencies, may request that NSA provide the true identity of a masked U.S. person referenced in an intelligence report. The requested identity information is released only if the requesting recipient has a legitimate “need to know” the identity of the U.S. person and has the appropriate security clearances, and if the dissemination of the U.S. person’s identity would be consistent with NSA’s minimization procedures (e.g., the identity is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance). Furthermore, per NSA policy, NSA is allowed to unmask the identity for the specific requesting recipient only where specific additional controls are in place to preclude its further dissemination and additional approval has been provided by a designated NSA official.

Were those safeguards actually followed, or did the scofflaw Obama administration run roughshod over them? We don’t know for sure. But given the data in the next chart, it doesn’t appear that unmasking American citizens who were innocently caught up in NSA’s electronic surveillance was difficult.

This chart shows the extent to which “unmasked” information about American citizens was disseminated by NSA in 2016. First the chart, then some comments on it:

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NSA disseminated 3,914 Sec. 702 reports (i.e., reports on information gathered on a non-American target overseas) that contained identities of U.S. persons. Of the U.S. persons in those reports, 2,964 were originally masked–their identities not revealed–while 1,200 others were already unmasked when the report was distributed by NSA, presumably because NSA judged the identities needed to be known in order to understand why the information had national security implications. Note that this is a minority of cases. (The numbers don’t quite add up because some reports contain references to more than one U.S. person.)

Of the 2,964 reports where the identity of the American citizen was originally masked, the NSA ultimately released the identities of 1,934–65%–in response to requests from other agencies, like the State Department or the White House. Therefore the 3,914 reports containing information about U.S. citizens ultimately yielded 3,124 names of Americans (some of them no doubt more than once). Despite the elaborate procedures that are set up to safeguard the identities of Americans from disclosure, it appears to be no problem for senior administration officials like, for example, Susan Rice, to get whatever information they want on Americans–political opponents?–from the NSA.

There is one more curious fact about the report that the DNI released last week. It relates to the prior year’s report, released on April 30, 2016, and dealing with calendar year 2015. For the most part, the numbers in the 2016 report aren’t too different from the 2017 report. But this jumps off the page:

Under NSA policy, NSA is allowed to unmask the identity for the specific requesting recipient only under certain conditions and where specific additional controls are in place to preclude its further dissemination, and additional approval has been provided by a designated NSA official. In 2015, NSA released 654 U.S. person identities in response to such requests.

If only 654 U.S. Persons had their identities revealed in response to Obama administration requests in 2015, and that number tripled in 2016, the election year, we have a major news story. But the authors of the 2017 report moved quickly to assure us it was all a mistake:

For this statistic, last year’s Annual Statistical Transparency Report provided the number of approved requests (i.e., 654) for unmasking of U.S. person identities, rather than the number of U.S. person identities that were released. A single request may contain multiple U.S. person identities. This year’s report provides the number of U.S. person identities referred to by name or title released in response to specific requests to unmask those identities. The number of U.S. person identities that NSA released during calendar year 2015 in response to specific requests to unmask an identity was 2,232, which was the number that should have been reported in last year’s report.

In other words, the figure that was reported last year as the number of “U.S. person identities” that were released was flatly wrong.

The data in these two reports cry out for witness testimony. Only witnesses familiar with the processes described in the reports, and who know which Obama officials requested “unmasking” of American citizens, and why, can shed meaningful light. Will such witnesses ever testify?

Don’t hold your breath. First on that list is Susan Rice, but she has already refused to appear before the Senate subcommittee investigating this matter. That is no surprise; stonewalling was the Obama administration’s invariable response to scandal. Obama and his minions stonewalled successfully for two terms, and there is no reason to doubt that they can keep it up for two more terms–Trump’s.

Congressional committees are the world’s worst investigators, and that fact, combined with the Democrats’ intransigence, may prevent us from ever finding out what the Democrats were up to during the 2016 presidential campaign and the months that led up to it.