Confusing minor technical mistakes with real civil liberties infringements

Benjamin Wittes provides a devastating critique of the Washington Post’s overwrought account of what the latest set of Snowden-leaked NSA documents shows. According to Wittes, the Post “has managed. . .to completely mislead its readers as to the significance of these documents.” The problem, he explains “is not the paper’s facts [but] with the edifice it has built with those facts.”

Wittes also finds that the Obama administration’s public response to the disclosure of the NSA documents has been “botched.” The White House’s defensive posture only adds credibility to the Post’s misleading, sensationalist account.

Here, Wittes declares, is what the administration should have said:

Shameful as it is that these documents were leaked, they actually should give the public great confidence both in NSA’s internal oversight mechanisms and in the executive and judicial oversight mechanisms outside the agency. They show no evidence of any intentional spying on Americans or abuse of civil liberties.

They show a low rate of the sort of errors any complex system of technical collection will inevitably yield. They show robust compliance procedures on the part of the NSA. And they show an earnest, ongoing dialog with the FISA Court over the parameters of the agency’s legal authority and a commitment both to keeping the court informed of activities and to complying with its judgments on their legality.

While it took a criminal act to make this record public, we are deeply proud of this record and make no apologies for it.

Wittes proceeds to explain how the underlying documents “support every component of this statement the administration for some deer-in-the-headlights reason is not capable of making.” He concludes that the Post’s story, coupled with the Obama administration’s weak response, is leading to the pervasive confusion of “minor technical mistakes with real civil liberties infringements” and to the confusion of “a remarkable big picture portrait of self-policing and intelligence collection under the law with a portrait of rampant spying on Americans.”

Please read the whole thing.