The big story yesterday morning was a CNET story by Declan McCullagh titled "NSA Admits Listening to U.S. Phone Calls Without Warrants."
The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls.Charles Johnson noted at the time that what Nadler actually said didn't match this claim:
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed this week that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”
If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned....
If you read this carefully, you'll notice that the source for this "admission" is not the NSA at all -- it's second-hand information from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). And Nadler himself never even says he heard it from the NSA....And what Nadler was saying was in response to a denial from FBI director Robert Mueller that NSA can listen to a call at will -- or, if you agree with Josh Marshall, Nadler and Mueller were misunderstanding each other (or CNET's McCullagh was misunderstanding their conversation).
The key quote here is, "We heard precisely that you could get the specific information from that telephone." Notice: Nadler did not say they could listen to the phone call, he said "get the specific information."
...There's no mention of it in McCullagh's article, but this entire discussion was about metadata. They explicitly say this several times, using the word "metadata." And metadata is not "listening to phone calls"...
The CNET article was later altered, and retitled "NSA Spying Flap Extends to Contents of U.S. Phone Calls." And then after that, CNET's sister site ZDNET walked back the story:
Update at 2:50 p.m. ET on June 16: We're pulling the plug on this story ... following Rep. Nadler's latest comments casting doubt on CNET's story. In a statement to our sister site, Nadler said: "I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans' phone calls without a specific warrant." ...It's not surprising to me that CNET ran with this and that much of the blogosphere believed it. The government has a disturbing amount of access to what we're doing on the phone and the Internet -- but it's apparently not unlimited access. However, I think an awful lot of us would like to believe it's unlimited. That would make us -- all of us -- unambiguously at imminent risk of utterly unrestricted eavesdropping.
Update at 10:20 p.m. ET on June 16: The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement, debunking the claims. "The statement that a single analyst can eavesdrop on domestic communications without proper legal authorization is incorrect and was not briefed to Congress," the statement read....
We want this to be a story about villainy that's unchecked, with us as its victims. Similarly, we wanted to believe that the NSA agents directly taps into to the main servers of major Internet companies, rather than having access to FTP sites where specific information is dropped based on specific government requests. The latter is unsettling enough, but the former means they're reading what we're writing on the Internet as we type! All of us! You! Me! And that's not quite true.
Right-wingers love this feeling of persecution -- they want to believe that Obama is coming for their guns, itching to shut down their churches, planning to send them to death panels. It's an ego boost to believe the government wants to do this to you.
Lefties relish the story of the government targeting American citizens with drones. They could target us! The fact is, the vast majority of us aren't going to be targeted. The reality of the targeting seems sufficiently problematic without our trying to turn ourselves into potential victims -- but we like doing that. It makes us feel important.
There's a lot to dislike about this approach to national security. There's plenty to be appalled at. But the government really isn't as interested in most of us personally as some of us seem to want to believe.