Posts Tagged ‘NSA’


Must read FOI stories – 6/6/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • How can you get open records from private colleges? Find federal agencies they report to and request records: Internal Harvard report, obtained via FOIA request, shines light on ex-researcher’s misconduct.
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation dukes it out with the Justice Department in court hearings. EFF sued the Justice Department for access to records showing opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which found some of the NSA’s domestic telephone surveillance unconstitutional.
  • Michigan House of Representatives passes bill affirming the confidentiality of gun records and keeps them exempt from FOIA. The bill codifies a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court Decision that gun records disclosure was “a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”
  • Investigative Reporters & Editors have an awesome FOI podcast, aptly named FOIA Frustrations​. You should listen to it.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

Must read FOI stories – 5/23/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the web. If you’ve got a FOI story you want to share send me an email or tweet me.

Wisconsin court ruling is a real danger to open records. It’s a big problem giving government officials the right to “consider the intentions of people who file open records request when deciding whether to fill them.”

The joy of public records — You can’t make this stuff up… No spoilers on this one, you just have to click it.

It took four months to redact a majority of a top-secret Pentagon report conducted to determine the damage done by the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. It concluded that “the scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering.”

The FOIA Project just uploaded 97 new FOIA court documents, plus case descriptions. No need to pay for a PACER account now.

Federal Appeals Court ruling says that the CIA can keep their 50-year-old internal account of the Bay of Pigs secret indefinitely.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

FOI Daily Dose: NSA denies reporter’s FOIA request, open-data company to expand government data trove

NSA denies ProPublica reporter’s FOIA request for his own records

Jeff Larson of ProPublica filed a freedom of information request with the National Security Agency (NSA) asking for any personal data the agency collected about him, and his request was denied, according to ProPublica.

Larson filed the request on June 13, shortly after the first of the NSA’s mass surveillance systems was unveiled on June 6. He received a letter from the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Pamela Phillips on June 24 neither confirming nor denying that the agency had his metadata and warning him any response could “allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.”

In the letter (see here), Phillips cites section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA’s surveillance in the interest of national security and tells Larson granting his request would compromise classified information (the existence or non-existence of such metadata).

Ultimately, Larson concluded he would have to file a lawsuit if he actually wanted to see his records. While he was in touch with the NSA, he learned that their FOIA office has received more than 1,000 information requests since June 7 and hasn’t approved any Privacy Act requests for metadata, according to ProPublica.

“We do not search operational records on specific individuals,” Phillips told Larson.

Open-data company raises money to expand government data trove

An open-data cloud software company that plans to put the NSA’s data online and analyze it raised $18 million to share more government information with the general public, according to TechCrunch.

The Seattle-based Socrata consumerizes “untapped” government data by putting it into accessible and usable forms for citizens, developers and government employees. The funding came from OpenView Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Ventures and Frazier Technology Partners, and as part of the deal,  Scott Maxwell of OpenView will join Socrata’s board.

Along with hiring more staff, the company said it will use its new funds to expand its cloud infrastructure and develop portals and apps it calls “the next wave of open data and government performance innovations.” One of Socrata’s most recent apps called GovStat allows government agencies to set goals and measure their impact against data. GeekWire said many cities are already using Socrata for everything from compiling restaurant inspection data to election results and voter information.

TechCrunch asked Socrata about its plans for the NSA’s data, and Socrata said it has a platform “designed to help put the government online to see what it is doing with the data and what can be built from it.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Daily Dose: Poll shows Americans support NSA surveillance but still want answers

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that although 58 percent of Americans support the National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence-gathering program, an even larger majority is still eager for answers.

According to the poll conducted June 12-16 on a national random sample of 1,017 adults, 65 percent want Congress to hold public hearings on the NSA surveillance programs.

The Washington Post analyzed the results June 19, comparing the findings to previous public opinion polls about the NSA surveillance since the programs were unveiled June 6. A CNN/ORC poll on June 17 showed that 66 percent of Americans supported the federal government tracking foreign Internet activity, and yet a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll published the same day found only 48 percent approved of the phone and Internet data collection.

To help clear up confusion about the surveillance, NSA Director Keith Alexander told a House committee on June 18 that the programs helped foil more than 50 terror threats worldwide, including more than 10 in the U.S. Homeland, according to USA Today.

Alexander told lawmakers: “I would much rather be here today debating this than explaining why we were unable to prevent another 9/11” attack.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Daily Dose: Fox News reporter uses NY shield law to fend off subpoena; Dems and GOP criticize Snowden, NSA director speaks about leaks

New York shield law may fend off subpoena

A Fox News reporter is seeking protection from being forced to reveal her sources in Colorado court under New York’s shield law, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Fox News reporter Jana Winter was subpoenaed in January for a July 25 story she wrote about the Colorado movie theater massacre last summer involving two anonymous law enforcement sources.

A five-judge panel heard the case on June 12 when Winter’s attorney argued that she should not be forced to reveal her sources because even though she was reporting in Colorado, she lives and works in New York, and is therefore protected under New York’s shield law, which provides “absolute privilege for journalists’ confidential sources and reporting materials,” RCFP said.

The attorneys for the accused shooter James Holmes subpoenaed Winter, saying the law enforcement sources violated Holmes’ right to a fair trial by telling Winter about his notebook allegedly filled with drawings of the planned shooting.

With the help of a Colorado judge in January, the attorneys got Justice Larry Stephan of Manhattan to sign-off on a subpoena, and Winter’s attorney, Dori-Ann Hanswirth, filed papers to appeal Stephan’s decision to sign, according to Fox News.

Since Stephan signed, Winter had to attend a Colorado hearing in April to determine whether Holmes’s notebook qualifies as evidence in the case. Winter is scheduled to reappear before the court in August, and if the notebook is ruled a “substantial issue,” she will be ordered to reveal her sources lest she face time in jail for contempt of court, according to RCFP.

But the New York court’s decision from Wednesday’s hearing may save her if they rule that Stephan should not have signed-off on the subpoena in the first place. Hanswirth told RCFP she is hopeful the New York court will decide before August.

Snowden under fire from both sides of party lines, NSA director speaks out

National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden received criticism from Republicans and Democrats on June 13 after closed briefings with top administration officials, according to Yahoo News.

Two senior Republican lawmakers raised vague, yet alarming concerns that terrorists are already changing their tactics now that the NSA surveillance programs are unveiled.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich) said there are “changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm,” and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) of the Senate Intelligence Committee said those “changes” might even cost American lives, according to Yahoo.

“His disclosures are ultimately going to lead to us being less safe in America because bad guys will be able to figure out a way around some of the methods we use, and it’s likely to cost lives down the road,” Chambliss said.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Maryland), the committee’s ranking Democrat, expressed concerns and questions about Snowden’s choice of a Hong Kong hideout since it’s part of China, “a country that’s cyberattacking us every single day.”
NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander also spoke out for the first time, sharing concerns about terrorists changing their plans in response to the leaks and saying he hopes to bolster support for the programs by declassifying “dozens of attacks” they have helped disrupt, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Alexander defended NSA’s intelligence programs as legal and necessary. But he did admit concern that junior employees like Snowden can access so many national security secrets and said that issue needs to be addressed.

“This individual was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network,” he said. “This is something we have to fix.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Update: NSA whistle-blower on the run, Judge Vinson attends security conference, speculation of presidential power abuses

After Edward Snowden outted himself as the whistle-blower who unveiled the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, he allegedly fled the Hong Kong hotel room he was hiding out on June 10, according to Fox News.

On the morning of June 11, Snowden’s whereabouts were still unknown, but Hong Kong newspapers plastered with his image called him the “World’s Most Wanted Man.”

Fox News reports that if the Justice Department catches and charges Snowden, it’s likely to ask the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) for “a provisional request to arrest him pending extradition to the United States.”

Meanwhile a community of whistle-blowers spouted praise for Snowden in a series of letters published June 10 on the Guardian, commending his courage in revealing himself and standing up to one of the world’s most powerful security agencies.

In related news, The Center for Public Integrity collected disclosure records that revealed the judge who signed the court order requiring Verizon to give its customers’ telephone records to the NSA went to a seminar on strong executive branch powers in August 2008.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson attended lectures about the balance of civil liberties and national security, especially in times of terror, at the “Terrorism, Civil Liberty, & National Security” seminar sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).

Vinson began his term on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2006, and it just expired in May.

Although Americans are largely divided about whether NSA’s surveillance is warranted to protect national security, The Atlantic published a provocative article June 7 urging Americans to consider the potential abuses of power that could ensue if a dictator seizes control of our current security infrastructure in the 2016 election.

Politics writer Conor Friedersdorf said Americans are too trusting of their own leaders and too fearful of potential terror threats that may or may not be real. But he said there is one very real threat to American security: Citizens giving up our Constitutional rights and liberties to presidents we trust, creating a dangerous precedent for when someone we may not even know now inherits those same presidential powers in the future.

“In less than four years, an unknown person will start presiding over the national-security state. He or she will be an ambitious power seeker who will guiltlessly misrepresent his or her character to appeal to different voters, lie countless times on the campaign trail, and break numerous promises while in office. That’s a best-case scenario that happens every time!”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI FYI: Is NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden a hero or villain?

While U.S. officials hunted for who leaked about the National Security Agency’s sweeping domestic surveillance late last week, the whistle-blower outed himself.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and a current employee for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, requestedthe Guardian reveal his identity in an article and video interview published June 8.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told the Guardian.

After working at the National Security Agency for the last four years, Snowden said he decided to leak top secret information about the government’s surveillance because his conscience got the best of him. He didn’t feel right about racking up a big pay check in his Hawaii office all the while fighting off his gut feeling that NSA workers like him could easily grant themselves the right to snoop on average Americans without “public oversight.”

“The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,” Snowden told the Guardian.

In the interview he also said the NSA “routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America,” and he hopes that his outing will not detract attention from the top secret documents and information he publicized.

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” he told the Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

Snowden made the decision to out the NSA in what the Guardian is calling the “biggest intelligence leak” in the organization’s history about three weeks ago when he copied top secret documents in his office and boarded a plane to Hong Kong on May 20. He has been hiding out and conducting secret interviews with the press ever since. He told his supervisors he needed to leave work for “a couple of weeks” for epilepsy treatments (a condition he actually has), the Guardian said.

Snowden told the Guardian that he chose Hong Kong because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,” and he thinks it’s one place he can hide from the repercussions of blowing the whistle on ultra-powerful American intelligence agencies.

Before Snowden revealed himself, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald who has been breaking information about the NSA’s surveillance since June 5 (see our previous blog post) appeared on ABC News “This Week” Sunday to warn Americans there might be more than one NSA whistle-bower and to commend whistle-blowers everywhere for not allowing government prosecution to dissuade them from speaking out.

“(S)ince the government hides virtually everything that they do at the threat of criminal prosecution, the only way for us to learn about them is through these courageous whistle-blowers – who deserve our praise and gratitude, and not imprisonment and prosecution,” Greenwald told ABC News.

But also on “This Week” Sunday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)  and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told ABC News that the NSA’s massive surveillance program is not only “within the law,”  but also it has already helped thwart terror plots, including Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plan to bomb New York City’s subways.

“I can tell you, in the Zazi case in New York, it’s exactly the program that was used,” Rogers told ABC News.

On June 7, President Obama addressed the press at an appearance in California primarily about health care. He explained that although he welcomes debate about citizen’s privacy concerns, he does not welcome the leak to the press because he said the NSA’s top secret programs are secret for a reason. They help the government identify and stop potential terrorists without alerting terrorists about how the system works.

“Our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm, and if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified,” Obama said on June 7.

He noted that NSA employees can be trusted to “operate like professionals” and their surveillance methods are “very narrowly circumscribed.”

One senior law enforcement source told ABC News last week that the leaker’s decision to spill top secret information about the NSA was “completely reckless and illegal.”

“It’s more than just unauthorized. He’s no hero,” the source told ABC News.

Whistle-blower Watch: DOJ ‘very likely’ to seek source of NSA leak in Verizon case

Federal whistle-blowers, beware. Attorney General Eric Holder is “very likely” to seek out the source who squeaked to the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s top secret phone record raid, according to an NBC correspondent who interviewed Attorney General Eric Holder about the Associated Press and Fox News subpoenas after the news broke.

The Guardian published a court order for the NSA to obtain Verizon customers’ phone records as well as a provocative article calling out the Obama administration’s “extreme interpretation of the law to engage in excessive domestic surveillance” on the evening of June 5. (See our previous post on the topic.)

But before the Guardian posted the order or the article, it said it approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Justice Department, all of which declined to comment or raise specific security concerns as to why the information should not be made public.

Even so, NBC News Justice correspondent Pete Williams, who appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” June 6 with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, confirmed that the Justice Department will investigate who blew the whistle.

“I was told last night: definitely there will be a leak investigation,” Williams said.

But on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” later that morning, Williams backed away from such certainty, telling host Chuck Todd: “It seems highly likely this will trigger a leak investigation.”

The Huffington Post said a senior administration official told them Thursday morning that it’s too early to suggest an investigation will “definitely” take place.

Stay tuned for updates.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Daily Dose: Feds obtain broad phone records for Verizon customers

Think The Associated Press and Fox News were the only ones whose phone records are watched by federal officials?  Think again. If you have a Verizon phone, you can add your name to the list.

A top secret court order issued in April grants the National Security Agency (NSA) a three-month window to collect phone records for any and all of Verizon’s millions of customers, including those who aren’t suspected of wrongdoing.

The order, approved through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) judge, expires July 19, but until then, it mandates that all calls are monitored on an “ongoing, daily basis,” according to the Guardian, which broke the story the evening of June 5.

A September 2012 Statistic Brain report shows that Verizon connects an average of 1 billion calls per day, and the government can monitor all calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Although feds won’t be listening in on your conversations, the order allows them to see the numbers of both parties on a call, as well as the call location, duration and “unique identifiers,” the Guardian said. They can also track the time and duration of all calls you make.

Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald explains that this order shows for the first time that the Obama administration’s domestic surveillance rivals the Bush-era exploits into domestic telephone, Internet and email records authorized in 2001 to protect what the former administration called “national security interests” after the 9/11 terror attacks.

But Greenwald notes that the Obama administration’s Verizon surveillance is “extremely unusual” because FISA court orders typically monitor a “specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.”

Even those who typically support the president took to Twitter last night when the report came out, including former Vice President Al Gore who called it “obscenely outrageous.”

The Guardian said so far the NSA, the White House, the Justice Department and Verizon have declined comment. It is unknown whether other cell-phone providers have similar orders, but in a news conference on June 6, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) confirmed Verizon’s order is a three month renewal of ongoing practice, the Huffington Post reports.

More than anything, Greenwald’s article emphasized the current administration’s “extreme interpretation of the law” to exploit American privacy without the American people even realizing it.

For watchdog journalists, it’s only the latest federal tug on our leash, reminding us the government still has its hold on private communications, and its grasp might be stronger than we imagine.

Greenwald points to “numerous cryptic public warnings” from U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Co.) who have said the administration’s domestic surveillance power is so broad the American public would be “stunned” to learn its scope.

The New York Times reported that the legality of this type of domestic surveillance falls under the “hotly debated” Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Wyden and Udall disagree with the discrepancy in the way the Obama administration described Section 215 as a way to obtain a grand jury subpoena for business records in an ordinary criminal investigation and then secretly use the section to make it easier for the NSA to get a FISA court order to obtain any “business records” (from companies like Verizon) by proving that they were “relevant” to a national-security investigation.

The senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that this secret interpretation was misleading, saying: “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”

But in 2011, the Justice Department denied misleading the public about the Patriot Act, according to the New York Times.

The Times said it filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011 for a report describing the government’s interpretation of its Patriot Act surveillance powers.

But Times reporters Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt explain: “The Obama administration withheld the report, and a judge dismissed the case.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Drake agrees to plea bargain

Whistleblower Thomas Drake’s case ends with plea bargain

The case against Thomas Drake ended with a squeak, not a roar.

Drake, who provided information to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2007 about waste in the NSA, accepted a plea bargain last week in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of intentionally exceeding authorized usage of his government computer.

Although the misdemeanor carries a potential prison sentence of one year, the government agreed that Drake would not serve any jail time. The misdemeanor is minor compared to the 10 felonies for which he was originally charged.

Drake was not on trial for leaking information to the Baltimore Sun, although the leak led to his indictment.

Concern that the federal government was overreaching in its prosecution of Drake was explored by several media outlets, including a New Yorker article on Drake’s indictment and a Washington Post editorial that said the federal government might be going overboard in its prosecution of Drake.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

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