Transcript: CSIS panel on NSA’s PRISM surveillance program – Part Four

PART FOUR: Partial transcript of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) panel on the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program on June 25, 2013. The panelists are: Bob Schieffer, CBS News; Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter; David Sanger, New York Times reporter; and James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
What can we do, Jim? …It is amazing. There’s a difference – there is a capability and then then abusing a capability. That’s just one of the questions that comes up here…Just tell us a little bit about what kind of capabilities we have. I’d like to know.

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
[Laughter] That’s a tough one. You know, it’s fair to say that after Sept. 11th, there was a lot of effort to integrate intelligence sources and expand some collection abilities.

And one of the things that was most useful was – you know, you capture some guy’s cell phone in Afghanistan. You look in the cell phone, there are some numbers, right? Interesting. One of them in the U.S. Who is that person in the U.S. talking to? And at that point, you’re kind of stuck. You really need to know this. You really do. But to do it, you’re going to have to get essentially what’s like your phone bill, right? So that’s what they’re collecting. And if you don’t do that, you may have unhappy surprises.

So a lot of it is this ability to collect and combine SIGINT [signal intelligence], HUMINT [human intelligence] stuff captured on the battlefield. That’s where the edge comes from now.

This is not new. If you remember, there was the ECHELON debate in the 1990s where the Europeans suddenly became excited because they thought there was a global system to collect all traffic and they did a big investigation of it. The European Commission did. They concluded, “Well, you know, it’s really not so bad as we think.” I think that’s what we’re going to end up here. There are trade-offs. We do need to debate them. More transparency would be useful but we need this collection capability.

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
My issue with my new friend, Jim. [Laughter]

…First of all, there’s a legitimate problem here that you’ve identified. Absolutely you had a intelligence legal framework in which you could then spy on bad guys overseas and you could get warrants to spy on known bad guys or suspected bad guys domestically. But when you got to the scene, which is what you care about when you’re trying to protect the country, you had new addition, you had barriers that were hard to get through you.

But what you’ve just described is not really what these programs that we’re writing about now are doing. If you pick up somebody’s pocket litter in Afghanistan and it’s got 35 phone numbers and 17 email addresses, that’s when you can go out and get individual FISA warrants by going to court and say, “This was in so-and-so’s pocket and we want to get a warrant to look into that.” You can do that. You have to show only that the information you want is relevant to an authorized national security investigation. That is a very low bar. It’d be easy to meet in that case every time.

What they’re using these programs for is what people conventionally call “data mining” and what’s actually called “contacts chaining” in this context. They’re looking for unknown suspects, unknown plots by finding hidden relationships among people.

So if you start with one contact – one suppose it’s a terrorist contact. You say, “Who’s in touch with that person? Who’s in touch with all those people?” That’s called going out two hops. It’s an exponential growth in the number of people you’re surveilling that way.

Everybody remembers the six degrees of separation idea, which is once you get six degrees of separation from you and anyone else in the room you’ve encompass the whole planet. So two hops is far. It’s a big number.

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
This is such an old technique that when they trained – this is declassified so you can find it on the web. They used to teach how to do this using mail, using envelopes. Of course, you want to find the guys who you don’t know about. You have one person you know and you want to say what is the network that he’s involved in, and you have to look at people who are not known, not suspects, that you couldn’t get a warrant on.

And I think the administration probably is a little miffed because they probably feel like they went out of their way to do this in a constitutionally safe manner. Not public enough. But this is a traditional technique that goes over at least back in the 19th century. I mean, they were teaching it to children when I was a boy. So… [Laughter]

David Sanger, New York Times reporter:
Jim’s a long-time friend and I’m in agreement with him that this method has been used a lot.

The mistake, I think, the U.S. government may have made along the way was the judgment that what was declassified for doing with mail had remained classified when it had to do with email or with phone numbers and so forth.

And it does the question that got raised back in the days when Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote their story in – what, 2005? – [on] the warrantless wiretapping. Well, again, you ask the question why couldn’t the government have at least described the outline of this program because they leave themselves open to the same kind of exposure and debate then and the argument about whether or not it really needed to be classified.

And what you discover when you go back and you look at some of these cases including warrantless wiretapping, I would argue even WikiLeaks, that the amount of damage that we were told was going to be done probably overstated a bit what damage was actually done.

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
It’s very clear why they – one reason why they don’t want to have even that degree of transparency. It’s because the more you know about this, the more it creeps you out. I mean, let’s review the bidding of what we now know about these programs. They are collecting all of the metadata involving telephone calls and Internet communications, which is chats, emails, video, and voice over IP –

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