Edward Snowden Says More Info About “Direct Access” Is In the Works

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Edward Snowden is holding a live Q&A at the Guardian. Here’s one exchange:

Anthony De Rosa:

1) Define in as much detail as you can what “direct access” means.

2) Can analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?

Answer:

1) More detail on how direct NSA’s accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on — it’s all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.

2) NSA likes to use “domestic” as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of “warranted” intercept, it’s important to understand the intelligence community doesn’t always deal with what you would consider a “real” warrant like a Police department would have to, the “warrant” is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp.

Snowden’s reply about direct access is weirdly nonresponsive. He’s talking here about analysts’ access to NSA databases, not to corporate servers, and he seems to be talking about metadata, not content. What’s more, even if he is talking about content, he’s talking about content that’s already been collected by NSA, not content “direct” from Google’s servers. He’s right that access to this stuff is policy-based, but then again, I’m not sure what else it could be. In the end, access to everything is policy-based.

His reply to the warrant question is a little clearer, but doesn’t really say anything new. Section 702 warrants are indeed very broad, and once issued can cover communications from a lot of targets. When this stuff is swept up, some of it inevitably turns out to be domestic communications, which NSA is required to either discard or segregate away from the view of analysts according to court-mandated minimization procedures.

Now, does NSA really do this? How do we know? Those are good questions, but Snowden sheds no light on that. He’s just telling us that 702 warrants are very broad, something we already knew.

I really wish Snowden were more forthcoming and less evasive in his answers to questions like this. It’s been over a week now, and if he really has more detail about what “direct access” means, it’s long past time to share it with us. Ditto for any evidence that NSA is abusing its minimization protocols.

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate