NSA channels Joseph Heller

The US National Security Agency has decided that it is best to take a Joseph Heller approach to dealing with questions about how many people it had been spying upon.

The senators wrote to the NSA asking how many people’s personal privacy has been violated under new counterterrorism powers. The NSA wrote back and said it would really like to be able to tell civil libertarian Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, but that would violate personal privacy.

So in true Joseph Heller style the NSA can’t tell you about infringements to personal privacy because that would infringe the personal privacy of the people whose privacy has been infringed.

The answer was the brainchild of Charles McCullough, the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the nominal head of the 16 US spy agencies.

According to Wired, McCullough told the senators a review of the cases would also violate the privacy of US persons.

However, there was not a lot of detail that the senators wanted. Wyden asked for a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been monitored under this law, and he said it was disappointing that the Inspectors General cannot provide it.

He said that if no one will estimate how many Americans have had their communications collected under this law then it is all the more important that Congress close the ‘back door searches’ loophole, to keep the government from searching for Americans’ phone calls and emails without a warrant.

The changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008 relaxed the standards under which communications with foreigners that passed through the United States could be collected by the spy agency.

The NSA did not need probable cause to intercept a person’s phone calls, text messages or emails within the United States as long as one party to the communications was “reasonably” believed to be outside the United States.