nsa-transparency

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) today released its first “transparency report.” It’s a supposed effort to comply with demands for the intelligence community to be more open about its activities after Edward Snowden revealed several controversial programs in 2013. The only problem? Like many of the government’s attempts to placate the public by committing to further transparency, this report is so vague that it might even be considered meaningless.

The report seems straightforward enough: It lists the legal authorities granted to intelligence agencies, the number of times those authorities were used, and the number of targets affected by those uses. But the definition of “target” supplied by the ODNI specifically says that the term can apply to “an individual person, a group, or an organization composed of multiple individuals or a foreign power” that “possesses or is likely to communicate foreign intelligence information” that the United States government is allowed to collect with these authorities.

This makes every number in the “target” column meaningless. There is no way of knowing if the 89,138 targets affected by the single use of Section 702 of FISA affected that many people or if it affected far more because one of those “targets” was an entire country. Without that context, this is less a “transparency report” and more a way of revealing a deliberately obtuse set of figures that make people feel like they’re peering behind the intelligence community’s curtain without actually exposing any of the mechanisms that curtain was raised to hide.

As Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, writes,

This means that where the “target” is an organization composed of many people, and the government uses FISA to require disclosure of information from many different providers about the many accounts used by those people, covering a broad array of services, it may only report that there was one target. By contrast, in our methodology, and that used by other companies, we each would count the number of accounts impacted by a particular surveillance request. The government could provide more meaningful transparency by specifying the number of accounts too.

Access’ Amie Stepanovich was more blunt in her assessment of the report to the Guardian:

The ODNI report calls itself into question by saying they’re providing numbers, but immediately saying those numbers are only true to the extent the intelligence community believes it can release them without compromising sensitive information. The numbers could be much greater, and made to look smaller because of what the intelligence community calls preserving intelligence programs.

This makes the report released today little more than another morsel of information presented as a feast on which the public can gorge itself so it can stop consuming the entrées served up by the Snowden documents. Given the Obama administration’s attempts to portray itself as a transparency-loving administration even as it condemns both whistleblowers and journalists while classifying or withholding more documents than any other administration in history, this report’s inability to reveal much of anything should hardly come as much of a surprise.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]