Privacy SOS

When the NSA tells journalists things, those things are not necessarily true

If you find yourself reading a story about US war or spying that contains a variation on the phrase “according to US officials” in the top paragraph, you are likely biting into a whopper of state propaganda and lies. Today's NYT reporting on Snowden documents provides just the latest example.

Back in February 2014, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal published big time stories under the bylines of two of those newspapers’ most respected ‘national security’ and surveillance journalists. The Post story started like this:

The National Security Agency is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records because of an inability to keep pace with the explosion in cellphone use, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Wall Street Journal story, reporting the same official claims:

The National Security Agency's collection of phone data, at the center of the controversy over U.S. surveillance operations, gathers information from about 20% or less of all U.S. calls—much less than previously thought, according to people familiar with the NSA program.

AP’s Phillip Bump ran a story based on the Post’s version. Troubingly, his first paragraph dispensed entirely with the origin of the information. In Bump’s retelling, the information appears to have come from God—or at least is as good as The Word.

The NSA's vaunted cell phone metadata collection program, often defended on the grounds that its comprehensive sweep of information allows the government to uncover unseen connections, only collected about 30 percent of all such information as of last summer.

The problem with these stories? Actual NSA documents (read: not NSA employee claims to journalists) show they are false.

The New York Times reports on documents disclosed by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden:

In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.

I must quibble a bit with the New York Times excellent reporting here, only to suggest that what's "striking" about the discrepancy between what journalists reported and the truth isn't the fact that the NSA would lie to journalists. What's striking is that journalists continue to print official, often anonymous claims about government surveillance programs without a shred of evidence that those claims are true.

In February 2014, the NSA must have decided—perhaps in consultation with other parts of the US security state establishment—to lie to a few key journalists in order to propagate the myth that the all powerful intelligence agency couldn’t figure out how to obtain cell phone call records. At the time, not everyone believed it (myself included). But two powerful US newspapers were credulous, and printed the NSA’s claims as if they were fact—in the apparent absence of any documentation or other confirmation.

Everyone, including media consumers, needs to remember a very simple thing about intelligence agencies: they are professionals in deceit and manipulation. A good spy must be able to lie and connive in order to achieve their goals.

You wouldn’t expect a car mechanic to be a good oral surgeon. You also shouldn't expect spies to tell the truth. Remember that the next time you read a newspaper article based off of undocumented, unproven “official” claims.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.