President Trump speaks on the phone with Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, during the first official phone talks in the Oval Office last Saturday.
Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
February 05, 2017

Fact Checking This Week In The Trump Administration

It's only the second week of the Trump administration, but there has been a continued tension with facts. In his first week, the president boasted about his inaugural crowds and doubled down on false claims that there were millions of illegal voters who swayed the results of the popular vote.

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James Clapper
October 04, 2013

Officials Detail Shutdown's Chilling Effect On National Security

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress this week that the partial federal government shutdown has forced the furlough of some 70 percent of employees throughout the intelligence community.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Clapper, a 50-year veteran of intelligence work.

So what impact is all this having on the spy world?

A senior U.S. official tells NPR that because of the shutdown, some intelligence agencies are focusing only on the biggest threats: counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. So some other issues, such as detecting and defending against cyberattacks and keeping an eye on ballistic missile launches around the world, are falling by the wayside. They just don't have the personnel to keep track of everything.

There has been no spike in cyber attacks, the senior official said, but there's a worry that this could happen should hackers or adversaries such as Iran try to test the system. As far as ballistic missile launches, the spy agencies want to keep track of the missiles — and what they can learn about any new developments — in places like Syria to North Korea.

Moreover, with North Korea, the U.S. Command in the region is keeping a close eye on things. But the senior official said that since the shutdown, Washington, D.C-based intelligence agencies are unable to process some of the intelligence coming from North Korea.

Another consequence if the shutdown continues? The intelligence community won't have the manpower to be able to turn raw intelligence into reports for Capitol Hill and the White House.

In the last few years, the feds have expanded efforts to collect tips about people's behavior in the real world. At a fusion center in Las Vegas, workers like Daniel Burns, a program coordinator, analyze suspicious activity reports. The ACLU on
(Monica Lam/Center for Investigative Reporting)
September 19, 2013

ACLU Posts Fed-Collected 'Suspicious' Activity Reports Online

With all the talk of spying by the National Security Agency, it's easy to forget the government engages in off-line surveillance, too. In the last few years, the feds have expanded efforts to collect tips about people's behavior in the real world; they're called suspicious activity reports.

Hal Bergman, a freelance photographer in Los Angeles, has a fondness for industrial scenes, bridges, ports and refineries.

"They're large and they're hulking and they're utilitarian and they look interesting," he says, "and they are spewing steam and I find that visually fascinating."

The problem is Bergman's fascination raises suspicions. He's routinely challenged by security guards and police officers — even when he's shooting on public property. Most of the time, the officials accept his explanation, but every now and then, they report him to the feds.

Once, two FBI agents showed up at his door, wanting to know what he'd been up to at the Port of Los Angeles.

"I show my portfolio. I show 'em what I was shooting. I may have shown 'em what I shot that day. And after five minutes of this, what felt like a really tense interrogation, they got really friendly. They realized I was harmless," Bergman says.

A year later, one of the same agents called him again, following up on another report. Bergman said the agent already knew he wasn't a threat, but he couldn't close the file until he'd asked him certain questions.

"He said to me, 'Do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America?' And I said, 'No, no I don't." And he says, 'OK.' "

What a waste of time says Mike German, who spent 16 years in the FBI.

"This is a system that is dulling the response, rather than helping," he says.

German is now senior policy counsel at the ACLU in Washington, D.C. His organization has obtained more than 1,800 of these suspicious activity reports, gathered in central California.

The ACLU got the reports through public records requests and posted them online. They're a fun read. You can see all the reports of suspicious people taking pictures of dams.

But there's also the two Middle Eastern men who bought $1,700 in cigarettes. There's the Sikh with the suspicious tattoo. And there's the inmate in Sacramento who was caught with a drawing that reads: "I Hate America."

"What we see here with these reports is that they are being based on people's political speech in some cases," German says. "And people's other First Amendment activity, like photography, and often based on their religion."

German says this violates a federal regulation that prevents police from sharing derogatory information about people if that information falls short of a reasonable suspicion of a crime. He says this program "dumbs down" the very concept of reasonable suspicion.


August 16, 2013

NSA Has Broken Privacy Rules 'Thousands Of Times Each Year'

The morning's major scoop comes from The Washington Post:

"The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents."

According to the Post, "most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls."

It adds that the audit and other documents come from "NSA leaker" Edward Snowden and "include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance."

An NSA official tells the Post that it tries to flag such problems "at the earliest possible moment, [and] implement mitigation measures wherever possible, and drive the numbers down. ... We're a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line."

The New York Times followed up the Post report and leads its story with this:

"The National Security Agency violated privacy rules protecting the communications of Americans and others on domestic soil 2,776 times over a one-year period, according to an internal audit leaked by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden and made public on Thursday night."

Politico says that:

"The details in the report are the clearest window yet into the extent to which surveillance programs overstep laws and other rules. Last year, the intelligence community declassified the fact that the FISA Court found that surveillance programs violated the Fourth Amendment at least one time, but little else has been divulged about the NSA's compliance records."

NPR has not obtained or seen the documents.

Last week, the Times reported that the NSA has been "searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans' e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance, according to intelligence officials."

President Obama
(Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
August 07, 2013

Obama To Leno: 'There Is No Spying On Americans'

President Obama on Tuesday defended the U.S. government's surveillance programs, telling NBC's Jay Leno that: "There is no spying on Americans."

"We don't have a domestic spying program," Obama said on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack. ... That information is useful."

Obama also called the National Security Agency's surveillance a "critical component to counterterrorism," and defended the shutdown of U.S. embassies and travel warnings this weekend, saying they followed information about a possible terror threat "significant enough that we're taking every precaution."

But he added: "We're going to live our lives," and noted that for Americans, the the odds off dying in a terrorist attack is lower than dying in a car accident.

On Snowden And Russia

During a lengthy discussion with Leno, Obama said he was "disappointed" in Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the CIA contractor who leaked information about the secret U.S. electronic surveillance program.

"There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality," Obama said of Russia. "What I continually say to them and to President [Vladimir] Putin, 'That's the past. We've got to think about the future.'"

Obama added that the U.S. government has been trying to reduce reliance on contractors, and asked rhetorically: "When it comes to intelligence, should we in fact be farming this much stuff out?"

Obama reiterated that he planned to attend the upcoming G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. "It's important to us," as the world's leading economy to attend, Obama said.

And in response to a question about Russian policies toward gays, Obama said any nation that violates "universal rights ... race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality" that should transcend every country.

On Trayvon Martin

Obama said that when he spoke out about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin: "What I wanted to try to explain was why this was a particularly sensitive topic for African-American families."

On Hillary Clinton

Obama said he invited former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, to a recent luncheon at the White House. "She had that post-administration glow," Obama said, and called her a "great secretary of state."

Leno: "Did you notice her measuring the drapes?"

Obama: "Keep in mind she's been there before. She doesn't have to measure them."

An army trooper in Yemen
(Khaled Abdullah /Reuters /Landov)
August 06, 2013

'Depart Immediately,' State Dept. Tells Americans In Yemen

Warning that "the security threat level in Yemen is extremely high," the State Department is urging any Americans in that country to "depart immediately."

The ominous advisory follows the "temporary shutdowns of 19 American diplomatic posts across the Middle East and Africa," The Associated Press reminds readers. It also comes after a more general worldwide "travel alert" issued last Friday.

As we wrote Monday, the missions were shuttered over the weekend after the U.S. gathered what lawmakers say is some of the most serious intelligence since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks indicating that terrorists are planning new strikes — most likely in the regions where diplomatic posts were closed, but possibly elsewhere.

On Morning Edition, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston said the decision to close the diplomatic posts and issue the warnings came, U.S. officials say, after intelligence agencies picked up electronic communications between Ayman al-Zawahri — al-Qaida's leader since the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden — and Nasir al-Wuhayshi. He's the head of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and may now be the No. 2 man in all of al-Qaida.

According to Dina, U.S. officials believe they have "a pretty good idea where the threat might come from — Yemen — but they don't have a target."

The State Department's message about Yemen adds that "terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), continue to be active throughout Yemen. The U.S. government remains highly concerned about possible attacks on U.S. citizens (whether visiting or residing in Yemen), and U.S. facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests."

According to the BBC, its correspondent in Yemen's capital says that Sanaa:

"Has been experiencing unprecedented security measures, with hundreds of armored military vehicles deployed to secure the presidential palace, vital infrastructural buildings and Western embassies in the capital. Our correspondent says that a security source confirmed Yemeni intelligence services had discovered that tens of al-Qaida members had arrived in Sanaa over the past few days from other regions in preparation for the implementation of a large plot."

Update at 9 a.m. ET. State Department Personnel Evacuated:

"In response to a request from the U.S. State Department, early this morning the U.S. Air Force transported personnel out of Sanaa, Yemen as part of a reduction in emergency personnel," Pentagon press secretary George Little says in a statement sent to reporters. "The U.S. Department of Defense continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation."

The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert Friday, warning of potential terrorist attacks.
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
August 02, 2013

State Department Issues Worldwide Travel Alert

The U.S. State Department has issued a worldwide travel alert because of an al-Qaida threat that is particularly significant in the Middle East and North Africa.

"Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August," State said in a statement. "This Travel Alert expires on August 31, 2013."

Of course, this follows the Department of State's decision to close all of its embassies and consulates across the Muslim world this Sunday. As Bill reported, the closures were prompted by intelligence information that pointed to signs of an al-Qaida plot "against American diplomatic posts in the Middle East and other Muslim countries."

The State Department warned tourists that terrorists may attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.

"Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services," the statement read. " U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling."

Back in February, the State Department issued a "worldwide caution" because of concerns that al-Qaida might attack U.S. citizens and interests.

August 01, 2013

U.S. Will Close All Embassies Sunday Over Security Concerns

The United States will close all of its embassies on Sunday because of security concerns, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.

AFP reports:

" 'The Department of State has instructed certain US embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday, August 4,' Harf told reporters.

"The decision was taken 'out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installations,' she said.

"Harf said that the embassies would be closed specifically on Sunday, with an assessment afterwards on whether to reopen them."

The State Department has not released a list of which embassies will be closed. This of course, brings to mind the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Update at 6:40 p.m. ET. All U.S. Embassies, Consulates Closed:

The State Department tells NPR's Michelle Kelemen that they have asked all of their embassies and consulates normally open on Sunday to close on Aug. 4.

A senior State Department official said:

"It is possible we may have additional days of closing as well. Again as Marie said at the briefing, the Department has been apprised of information that indicates we should institute these precautionary steps. We have taken this measure out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installations. The Department, when conditions warrant, takes steps like this to balance our continued operations with security and safety."

National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.
(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
July 05, 2013

NSA's Reach Leads To Calls For Updated Eavesdropping Laws

The continuing leak of classified information by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has renewed a debate about the U.S. government's power to reach secretly into the personal lives of its citizens.

But there is at least one point on which both privacy advocates and security experts agree: The laws governing electronic eavesdropping have not kept pace with technology.

In October 1975, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho began hearings on abuses in the intelligence community. His focus was a shadowy agency that was picking up the communications of Americans, including Vietnam War protestors and civil rights leaders.

The National Security Agency, Church said, was violating the law by listening in on Americans' phone calls. What came out of his hearings was new intelligence oversight committees in Congress and a secret court that would have to issue warrants for NSA to do its foreign intelligence work.

Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist and head of Fenn Communications, worked on the committee. "Our concern at the time," he says, "was the potential for NSA to be one big, huge vacuum cleaner" — one that could snatch phone calls and telegrams that might be used to target political enemies or stifle dissent.

Dozens of senators have written to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking him "to publicly provide information about the duration and scope" of the data-collection program.

Dozens of senators have written to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking him "to publicly provide information about the duration and scope" of the data-collection program.

He and other NSA critics say the spy agency's growing power has made that analogy seem quaint.

"What we've seen since," Fenn says, "makes that vacuum cleaner look like a 1920s Hoover."

What the NSA can do now is much more sophisticated and far reaching than in the 1970s, back when it was grabbing paper copies of telegrams at Western Union or intercepting satellite communications with large microwave dishes.

James Bamford, who has written three books about the NSA, says the agency has been able to throw out a larger net by tapping into cables as thin as a human hair that move phone calls, e-mails and faxes.

"These were fiber optic cables. ... You're able to squeeze tens of thousands of communications into a single cable," he says.

NSA is able to connect with those cables by getting secret court orders issued to American phone companies. All that information will eventually reside at a massive, new NSA facility in Utah.

"The irony here is that the only living, breathing archive of every long-distance telephone call made by every American resides in the computer databases of the National Security Agency," says Matthew Aid, who wrote a book called The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency.

It would have been technologically impossible for NSA to store and analyze all this information collected by the program back in the 1970s. Officials call it telephone metadata — it includes the phone number, the numbers dialed, the date and time of the calls and their duration.

But the program does not include names or content, and it was approved by that secret federal court created after the Church Committee hearings.

Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, talked about the program's importance at a recent Washington conference.

"We collect all the data because if want to find a needle in the haystack, you need to have the haystack, especially in the case of a terrorism-related emergency," Litt said.

If Americans are swept up in the net, he added, their information can be used only if there's evidence of a crime: "What we cannot do — and I'm repeating this — is go out and target the communications of Americans for collection without an individual court order."

But President George W. Bush's administration was able to do just that without a court order. In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA collected data on e-mail traffic, including messages to and from Americans.

The leaked documents from Snowden show that back then, the spy agency complained that the secret federal court could not move fast enough. Spy agency officials also worried that suspected terrorists could quickly change phone numbers before the NSA was able to get a warrant.

Congress was told of the warrantless collection a few days after the activity started, and there were no court orders issued for the first two and a half years. Amendments to the Patriot Act later allowed this collection of such bulk data.

A number of lawmakers say there are enough safeguards to protect Americans' privacy. But Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, says there has to be open debate.

"Frankly, I think we ought to reopen the Patriot Act and put some limits on the amount of data that the National Security Administration is collecting," Udall says.

Like the data that include Americans' long-distance telephone records, the law allows the NSA to collect what is termed "business records." But can that term extend to credit card purchases, bank accounts or even medical records?

A group of 26 senators — from both parties — put that question in a letter last week to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Fenn, the former Church Committee staffer, says more needs to be done. He says the law he helped write more than three decades ago is obsolete.

"You know, the word 'digital' wasn't even in our vocabulary. So what we have seen is an unbelievably outdated piece of legislation that has not kept up with the technology," he says.

So Fenn has a solution: create another Church Committee, one for the 21st century.


Edward Snowden
(The Guardian)
June 17, 2013

Snowden: NSA Collects 'Everything,' Including Content Of Emails

Self-described NSA leaker Edward Snowden has made some stunning allegations during a live chat with The Guardian today.

Snowden, who leaked classified documents revealing the existence of the NSA PRISM program, which U.S. officials say mines Internet data from foreigners, contradicted both what the big tech companies have said and what American officials have said in front of Congress.

Snowden said the NSA "likes to use 'domestic' as a weasel word." That is, while the government insists the program is all about foreigners, a lot of domestic communication gets dragged in while acquiring that data, he said. Snowden used a specific example:

"If I target for example an email address, for example under FAA 702 [a law that allows the gathering of electronic information on someone believed to be outside the U.S.], and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time — and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants."

Snowden was also asked if he stood by his original assertion that he could "wiretap anyone" as an intelligence employee. He said:

"Yes, I stand by it. US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it's important to understand that policy protection is no protection — policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection — a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the "widest allowable aperture," and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn't stop being protected communications just because of the IP they're tagged with."

The NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, said during a hearing last week on Capitol Hill that he knew of no way to do that.

As far as the denials from Google, Microsoft and others, Snowden said they were "misleading and included identical, specific language across companies."

We'll update this post with highlights of the Internet chat, so make sure to refresh this page.

Update at 12:35 p.m. ET. On Why He Leaked:

When asked why he waited to leak the documents he did, Snowden responded:

"Obama's campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge."

Update at 1:07 p.m. ET. Not A Chinese Spy:

On a couple of occasions, Snowden was asked if he was a Chinese spy. "If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing?" he said. "I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."

He was asked if he ever had contact with Chinese officials. He said:

"No. I have had no contact with the Chinese government. Just like with the Guardian and the Washington Post, I only work with journalists."

Update at 1:10 p.m. ET. More On His Reasoning:

Snowden was asked if a single moment made him decide to go public with the surveillance programs. He said:

"It was seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress - and therefore the American people - and the realization that that Congress, specifically the Gang of Eight, wholly supported the lies that compelled me to act. Seeing someone in the position of James Clapper - the Director of National Intelligence - baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy. The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed."

Snowden seems to be referring to testimony Clapper gave the Senate Intelligence Committee in March. He was asked if the government collected data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.

Clapper said no — "not wittingly."

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