Remaining Questions About PRISM

The Nation’s Rick Perlstein is a piece of shit acting in the worst possible faith in this piece, “Greenwald’s Epic Botch“, but he also has a point that Glenn Greenwald hasn’t properly addressed.

Piggybacking on concerns a few tech bloggers raised, Perlstein claims that Greenwald and his colleague Ewan MacAskill have jumped to potentially unwarranted conclusions about the nature of the PRISM program.  If you trace the lineage of Perlstein’s article to its source material, you find his concerns raised in a much better piece by WordPress developer Mark Jaquith.

Jaquith claims, correctly, that Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s article on PRISM strongly suggests that most of the largest internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo, have provided the NSA with direct access to user data unimpeded by even a pretense of judicial oversight. Jaquith cites this from the Guardian article:

When the [FISA Amendments Act] was first enacted, defenders of the statute argued that a significant check on abuse would be the NSA’s inability to obtain electronic communications without the consent of the telecom and internet companies that control the data. But the Prism program renders that consent unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.

Jaquith poses this quote against a recent New York Times account which says:

…instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.

The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.

According to Jaquith, the language in the NSA slides Greenwall and MacAskill quote does not definitively corroborate or contradict either account.

This slide claims “collection directly from the servers” of service providers. But it isn’t clear at all that “the servers” means the company’s central servers and not a digital clean room set up specifically to hold data on warrant targets. Greenwald seems oblivious to this possibility

For Jaquith, the difference is between a ‘bombshell’ and a ‘yawn’ and I suppose it is if by ‘yawn’ he means something we already fundamentally know. But it’s not something we should be indifferent to, considering the FISA court approves almost every request the NSA makes and that providers tend toward compliance. Nevertheless the difference matters, if only in the extreme efficiency with which an unfettered system can build  a dossier for any internet user on earth.

Karl Fogel, a fellow of the New America Foundation, which receives millions in Google and Microsoft lucre, repackaged Jaquith’s post with more snarky certainty, and, in the process, ludicrously remakes as an ‘epic botch’ the mere possibility that Greenwald misinterpreted the slide.  It’s on Fogel’s post that Perlstein largely bases his own, comically deferring to Fogel as uniquely possessing crucial expertise.

Greenwald’s response to Perlstein’s piece summarizes as ‘We never said what you’re saying we said but we would have been perfectly within our rights to say it anyway.’

If all the tech companies are doing under PRISM is providing what they’ve always provided to the NSA, but simply doing it by a different technological means, then why would a new program be necessary at all? How can NSA officials claim that a program that does nothing more than change the means for how this data is delivered is vital in stopping terrorist threats? Why does the NSA document hail the program as one that enables new forms of collection? Why would it be “top secret” if all this was were just some new way of transmitting court-ordered data? How is PRISM any different in any meaningful way from how the relationship between the companies and the NSA has always functioned?

This all sounds good, but it’s all speculative and doesn’t really resolve the doubts the naysayers are stirring up. Certainly the slides could be touting greater efficiency in getting compliance on judicially approved data requests. This efficiency, in turn, could bolster claims about improved responsiveness to terrorist threats. As for the Top Secret classification, Greenwald has previously beat the drum that, increasingly, the default mode for government agencies is secrecy, a tendency that must be particularly pronounced in the NSA.

I think Greenwald’s interpretation of the slides is credible, especially after perusing this interesting comment thread  where some of Fogel’s readers take their host intelligently to task.  But too little information is known right now for anyone to be certain, and it is no more satisfying  or substantive for Greenwald to complain of partisanship when fielding objections, than it is for Snowden’s detractors to belittle his leaks with charges of narcissism and treason.  Greenwald’s half-baked defense of his own conclusions seems particularly bothersome considering Snowden surely could have filled in some of the gaps, perhaps along with some part of the 36 slides that, by Greenwald’s own account, reveal technical methods and which he and The Guardian have decided, without explanation, are for their eyes only.

Greenwald insists that his main point is that whatever arrangements the NSA and these corporations have made, they have made in secret. That’s true, but we already knew that, and that’s a problem that won’t change soon.  The point of whistleblowing is to tell us things we don’t know.

Considered alongside the toxic Snowden  vs. Manning narrative that The Guardian needlessly injected into the discussion, this second, probably avoidable controversy suggests that some people might not be getting the sleep the important work  for which Snowden has chosen them requires.  Let’s hope that problem is soon resolved.



I really honestly don’t like citing Glenn Greenwald for foolishness and I really don’t like being on the Rick Perlstein side of anything. But he continues to shoot blanks at the issues discussed in this post.

The article he’s linking to here cites the Guardian on the question of direct access. In other words, Greenwald is invoking the authority of another journalist who in turn invokes Greenwald’s authority.

Then there’s this:

Now Glenn is invoking his own authority again, along with that of Gellman and all the other super smart, super diligent people he works for and with. In other words, he’s citing a poll result. I think it’s interesting he mentions ‘the source’ since, disappointingly, he and MacAskill did not quote Snowden at all in their PRISM piece. I’ve almost no doubt that these fine people are making more educated guesses than the rest of us, since they’ve seen all 41 slides and at least some of them have spoken to Snowden; but they haven’t imparted, even in broad strokes, what they know that the rest of us don’t.

Considering WaPo’s own PRISM news summary does not credit its own reporting or The Guardian’s with authority on the issue of direct access, I am at pains to see why anyone else should.

Greenwald just can’t seem to comprehend that people may be raising these questions in good faith or that, even if they aren’t, the doubts raised still have to be addressed with journalism.  I honestly want him to prove his case. He just hasn’t yet.

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36 Responses to Remaining Questions About PRISM

  1. Jaquith claims, correctly, that Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s article on PRISM strongly suggests that most of the largest internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo, have provided the NSA with direct access to user data unimpeded by even a pretense of judicial oversight.

    I can’t speak for these particular companies but do you remember al-Haramain vs. United States? And how it came out that the government(intelligence agencies) had access to an AT&T facility in San Francisco? The government has almost always had access to the nation’s communications infrastructure. Don’t people realize that In-Q-Tel was an investor in Facebook before it went public? And who knows what other companies they invest in. What does that tell you?

    • Tarzie says:

      “What does that tell you?”

      Nothing that definitively refutes the PRISM lock box theory.

      Like I said, I’m sympathetic to Greenwald’s assessment, but he hasn’t made a strong enough case. If we can infer everything from al-Haramain vs. United States we have no need of Snowden’s leaks or Greenwald’s articles at all.

  2. redscott says:

    I love how it’s the burden of the people exposing all this, in the face of continued efforts to thwart and defame them, to get all the information and to answer all the questions we might have, and the scrutiny is on them rather than on the people trying to make sure that we know none of it. Interesting and a little disappointing that you play along with it.

  3. redscott says:

    While they’re busy carrying out your assignments, should they get you a beer while you’re at it so that you don’t have to get up?

    • Tarzie says:

      I’m sorry but it’s precisely because people are discrediting the leaks that they should be adequately reported. I don’t think the PRISM reporting was good and I don’t think Greenwald’s response to critics has been adequately rigorous. I think his unexplained withholding of the other slides is problematic and particularly so if they answer the questions Perlstein and others raise. The result is that I don’t feel I completely understand the extent of PRISM myself.

      What are you proposing, that people on the left should applaud anything Greenwald puts out? What good does that do? Snowden handed Greenwald a huge, career-making opportunity here. I don’t think Greenwald’s risk is nearly as great as Snowden’s. In fact, I don’t think he is at much risk at all. Therefore, I don’t really feel guilty in insisting that he improve his game. This stuff is extremely important.

  4. thedoctorisindahaus says:

    I do think it’s possible to question the fullness of knowledge without detracting from the scandal. People looking to say it’s no big deal after all due to a lesser degree of technological invasion on the part of the nsa are the same ones who were dismissive of the maximal invasiveness model, too. The rest of us remain enthralled and disgusted and this question doesn’t detract from the model of a non-realtime query that accesses a stored record of EVERYTHING.

    If it’s publicly proven that such is not the case, wonderful. If it’s not proven, the outrage remains.
    I don’t see any slippery slope where the combination of guessy bloviating geeks, lying pols and clearly uninformed media faces convince anyone that this is all an overwrought interpretation of a silly little nothing program. Unless they want to be convinced, in which case they already are and just want something stupid to quote and sound like a truther.

    Questioning brings it to the fore of our attention. So much the better.

  5. Nemo says:

    Non-rhetorical question: do you think the details of how the NSA accesses Internet information is important, from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t trust the State either way?

    I mean, this whole discussion sounds, to me, as a cheap way to misdirect attention from the important part of the story, but I’m no tech expert, and maybe the distinction is just that important.

    • Tarzie says:

      Yes, I think the details are important. Even if you factor in that FISA basically honors any request the NSA makes, the end result is a process that is less efficient at building a dossier for everyone on earth than unfettered access is.

      While I think there is bad faith involved in the raising of this issue — certainly by Perlstein and The Nation — I think other people, like me, feel like the journalism on this has not been particularly solid. We’re rooting for Greenwald to make an unassailable case.

      I like Greenwald but I honestly think he and The Guardian were sloppy on this and now they’re icing their sloppiness with arrogance. I was already pissed off about the toxic Manning vs. Snowden framing they kicked this off with. Considering there are more explosive leaks to come, better that they get their shit together now rather than later.

      • Nemo says:

        I see. For the record, I’m with you on the sloppiness of the Guardian and Greenwald in this exposé. They are giving too many easy shots for the defenders of the status quo, as you yourself noted on their toxic comparisons between Snowden and Manning. And, frankly, I have my doubts how much of the withholding of information is to comply with Snowden’s wishes and how much of it is the Guardian attempting to keep its “serious newspaper” credentials (and get more clicks by spacing the stories more).

        My only spot of hope is that the people involved hint that the stories they plan to publish in the short-term future are even bigger than what has already been revealed. Hard to believe, but if true, it may be enough to make me forgive their behaviour so far.

        Anyways, thank you for the response. And good job playing devil’s advocate here. Greenwald shouldn’t get a pass just because he’s the best (least terrible) mainstream journalist out there.

      • Tarzie says:

        I don’t think the withholding has anything to do with Snowden.

  6. bystander says:

    I guess we have different expectations. I see less of “proving” a case, than building a scaffold for a case. I have no idea where this story is going to end, given that we know Greenwald has more to publish, and we don’t know how/when/if to anticipate other news gathering groups adding elements to the scaffold as it develops. I have some sympathy for those members of the jury who want all the details securely stapled to the floor, the time line cemented, and all the evidence traced to its origins and precise provenance established.

    However, I’m content – for now – to say this is early days. Ambiguities will emerge. In the end, disparate pieces will be reconciled where they can be, and won’t where they can’t. The NSA holds all the cards… we’ll only be allowed to see those wrested away by folks like Snowden and/or grudgingly relinquished by the gov’t. To me, that means sense making in the absence of certainty “all the way down.”

    • Tarzie says:

      Yeah, we do have different expectations. I am taking each disclosure on its face as journalism. I don’t think the worthiness of the goal or the strength of the adversary obliges me to suspend judgement on what I see as sloppiness and arrogance. Does it not bother you at all that Greenwald’s certainty is probably based on information and artefacts he’s not sharing? Doesn’t the ‘Trust Us’ paternalism make you cringe?

      I do not think whistleblowers put life and liberty in jeopardy so that other people can build ‘scaffolds’. I think the data is available for us to know exactly what Prism does. So why don’t we know yet? The companies have muddied the waters and no amount of calling them or their defenders liars will make the water run clear. I don’t think that’s a small thing.

      I wish people who object would do so by actually defending the piece in question. The rest just sounds like so much rationalizing on a foundation of low expectations and heroizing.

      • bystander says:

        With different expectations, I believe we are doomed to talk past each other. I would only offer some inchoate thoughts about the unfolding NSA story.

        Borrowing from Jay Rosen so there is a “that” to point to:
        I prefer the idea of credible as opposed to trust. I reserve trust for those with whom I can build a face to face relationship. So, the question for me is more, Is Greenwald building a credible narrative even if every single detail fails to foot at the bottom of the spreadsheet? And, so far, I think he is.

        The second thought I have is that this “NSA story” might really fall into a “too big to tell” domain if every single independent act of journalism (ie; published piece) has to be absolutely accurate in a language that most people don’t have. What – as a reader – I’m after is an understanding that moves me from where I sit at the beginning to a better level of understanding when I’m done.

        Finally, I’d emphasize the word unfolding. Yes, broadly speaking each published piece needs to stand on its own merit. But, I’m guessing that Glenn will understand the phenomena better at the end than he understood it at the beginning, and as a reader I’m along for the ride on that discovery process. I perceive this journalistic effort as a series of individual journalistic elements. I’m willing to allow that some elements Greenwald presents may be better constructed than others, but that’s where there is room for other news organizations to bring hazier pieces into sharper relief.

        For the record, I’m no more inclined to lionize Greenwald than I am to lionize Snowden. They’ve each undertaken risks – no, I don’t think the risks are the same, or comparable. But, to lionize is to know the motives behind their risk taking. I can’t know those. I would need to know those to trust, I don’t need them to determine credibility. In the final analysis we can each operate with different acceptable margins of error.

        Where it seems you’re focused on each published piece to achieve a confidence level. My confidence level depends on the process by which those pieces are produced.

      • Tarzie says:

        You’ve completely sidestepped my main point which is that the means were, and still are, there to tell a more solid story on this particular occasion. A related concern is The Guardian’s suppression of 36 slides.

        You seem to see this whole business as a lot more arcane than I do. “a language that most people don’t have”. Wha???

        I have no taste for the trumped up complexity thing.

  7. walterglass4 says:

    It’s super sweet that so many people want to give Greenwald the benefit of the doubt, but I’m out of patience at this point. His “how can any rational person say with a straight face” act has always been grating but now it’s becoming a liability.

    All the questions you’ve raised here are great – you’ve exhausted the public info available about PRISM and demonstrated that there are clearly missing pieces. This is exactly the sort of thing Greenwald does at his best.

    • Tarzie says:

      I hope Glenn is reading this so he knows I find this comparison flattering. (No hard feelings, Glenn!)

      I almost feel guilty for this post, so I’m glad you stopped by to be rancid, Walter.

  8. Pingback: » Blog Archive » PRISM: Why the “directly and unilaterally” mistake matters.

  9. thedoctorisindahaus says:

    Worth noting:
    On June 19, 2013, Tice claimed while being interviewed that the NSA had spied on Barack Obama himself while he was still a senator, along with monitoring federal judges, ranking military officials, and other members of congress, saying he himself had seen and held papers ordering such actions. [7][8][9]

    Despite all the sensible headed and timorous predictions that this will all lead to nothing more than some greater public awareness, my prognosis is that this will be the beginning of the end of the state as we know it. Look forward to it becoming something worse than China.
    Maybe more like a very overt mafioso style oligarchy. Complete with horses in beds. You wonder about blackmail. A person would have to be so stupidly pollyanna to imagine that blackmail isn’t already rife. Not that it makes the victims in even nominal power secretly good or anything.
    The federal judiciary has been obscenely spineless of late, particularly with regard to national security cases. I wonder why. What could it be? Are they just little weenies like most people in a bureaucracy? Or could there be more?
    The best part about this so called spying is that they don’t need to catch you doing anything. They can fabricate it and it’s plausible: all that fucking metadata for the trolls to buy. And if a court thinks it’s not meeting proper standards for evidence, well, just blackmail them too, with more fabricated evidence.

  10. Sorry I can’t stop laughing my ass off at how clueless everyone is about Internet architecture. The point is that NSA doesn’t need direct access from the servers of Google, Lamebook, Yahoo or any other sell out for-profit internet prostitute. Do a traceroute to any of these servers and see the hops your data makes across the backbone. All the NSA needs is one sniffer or fibre optic splitter anywhere along that line, at any cooperative service provider that your data touches and Mr. PRISM can snag your data. It is just as good as you emailing your username and password directly to the big house in Utah. Now – name one US service provider that isn’t playing ball with NSA. Any one. Just one. Second, noone seems to know how TCP/IP works, how your data can be re-routed at the speed of light around the globe, and all it has to do is touch one NSA-compromised server, router, switcher or sniffer anywhere in the world and it’s just like you are standing out in Times Square naked. Given the number of US embassies and Military Bases ringing the globe, you can bet that the chances of you sneaking anything past Uncle Charlie is as likely as the Cubs winning the world series. So good luck with smearing Greenwald and whining about his uncouth behavior; or chasing Rick Perlstein’s lame attitude. The game is on, and frankly, the nastier and more belligerent Greenwald is, the more I like it mister. Now quit bloviating and get back to studying your tech books so I don’t die of laughter. Cheers.

    • Tarzie says:

      Let me start at the bottom and work my way back. I’m not smearing Greenwald, and have actually discussed this matter with him on Twitter. To the extent that people can be friends exclusively on social networks, Greenwald and I are at least highly collegial acquaintances. (See the recent Mark Ames article where I am mischaracterized as a ‘cultist’) Please consider the possibility that when a person raises questions, there may be nothing more to it than a genuine interest in getting the answer and making concern trolls like Perlstein hate themselves. I still think Greenwald’s reporting on PRISM was weaker than it could have been and the entirely predictable result was fairly plausible denials from the PRISM partners, backed up by some technical bloggers who, by your account, are as confused about network architecture as most laypeople are.

      What you don’t seem to get is, not only do most people not understand this stuff, it’s ok that they don’t. In fact, as one who has spent way too much time interacting with network administrators — who answer help requests in much the same needlessly snide, smarter-than-you spirit as you write here — I think it’s a REALLY REALLY REALLY GOOD THING that most people aren’t of your tribe. Putting that aside, since most of Greenwald’s readers don’t understand the finer points of this shit, the burden is not on them to ‘go back to studying tech books’ as you idiotically suggest, but on Greenwald to make it understandable for them and to secure the technical assistance he needs for doing so. Greenwald didn’t do that.

      As a longtime admirer of Greenwald and a close watcher of this important NSA story, it is very disappointing to me that his response to the critics on this is to insist that he didn’t say what he essentially said and to promise that ‘more documents are coming.’ The Guardian and he had an expert at hand, Snowden, and they didn’t even use him for this story, apart from quoting 5 of the 41 slides he’d provided. (let’s put aside the suppression of the other slides, which Greenwald also hasn’t satisfactorily defended)

      You are also simplifying the ways in which the PRISM story is important. Technically, I suppose it’s possible for the government to hack into anything, including, say, Facebook’s data, even without Facebook’s compliance. This is close to what you’ve suggested. But that would be costly and also risky from a PR standpoint for both the NSA and Facebook. The story here isn’t simply that the NSA is looking at all our social network and email data; it’s that Facebook and the rest are entirely complicit. The extent of their complicity is a big part of the story, not simply because they are betraying the trust of their users, but because of the value they potentially add to the data the government takes from them. It’s one thing to simply lift raw, possibly encrypted data and try to make something of it, and another to take it unencrypted, with many of the necessary connections already made by Facebook, Google and their users in the course of a normal day. Educated guesses like yours only get us so far in understanding the nature of the plot and the plotters. Good journalism won’t require us to make them.

      Look at where the PRISM story still stands compared to the stories about phone records. Greenwald gave Facebook, Google, Yahoo etc an out that he did not provide to Verizon and concern trolls like Rich Perlstein and Charles Pierce ran with it. If you look around at the various news summaries of the NSA leaks, PRISM is widely reported as not yet being entirely understood and the providers’ denials are given full, largely uncontested play. Even the Washington Post did not summarize its own reporting — which drew the same conclusions as Greenwald — as hard fact. This is really a shame when you consider how much more immediately compelling on a visceral level the mining of email and social networks — that is, our content — is, compared to aggregating phone company metadata.

      As your comments demonstrate, this mitigating of the PRISM story needn’t have happened. But put the blame where it belongs, because insisting that readers do homework makes you sound a lot less smart than you think you are. That the solution to this problem is so simple — one fucking follow-up article quoting Snowden or someone like you on the technical points — makes Greenwald’s heel-digging and evasions look particularly self-unaware and foolish. I too find his belligerence highly entertaining sometimes, but not here, because it so completely unwarranted. He’s doing great work, but some humility about his limitations and mistakes would make it even better.

  11. Glenn Greenwald has admitted that he isn’t a techie, so perhaps he needs to reach out more to the folks who grasp the technical issues here. One way to do what would be to release all of the slides and allow sympathetic and technologically competent folks to comment.

    Odd that your comments are seen as an attack. In a sense, you are serving as a public “editor,” asking Greenwald to shore up a weak point in his copy.

    • Tarzie says:

      Yeah, I originally shunned the idea that Greenwald needed technical assistance on the grounds that it was one more occasion where techies were arguing for their own indispensability, but on reflection I think it would have been wise. He should have at least availed himself of Snowden, especially since in follow-up conversations he suggested that the article’s assertions about ‘direct access’ and PRISM were substantiated by his ‘source.’

      The implication that it’s unreasonable to expect a news story to stand largely on its own is really deeply fucking annoying. This latest commenter, scoffing at people who don’t understand the internet the way sysadmins do is really just an extreme variation on Greenwald’s ‘trust me and my editors, even though we haven’t substantiated anything. Also more documents coming!’ thing.

      The PRISM story should stand on its own. If there was more information gleaned from the slides the Guardian didn’t provide, Greenwald and his colleagues should have said so. If Greenwald’s assumptions about PRISM were based on things Snowden said, Snowden should have been quoted. It’s rather annoying that this obvious shit is not obvious to someone who wants to restore journalism to its investigative/advocacy essence. By giving Facebook, Google and co an easy out, The PRISM story was less explosive and less damning than it could have been.

      As to criticism always being seen as an attack, that just seems to be the nature of political discourse these days, and Greenwald — who, despite appearances, is vastly more self-aware and open to criticism than most of his colleagues — is sadly trading too often in the same nonsense lately. I guess a siege mentality eventually sets in. But in my view, the heavy lifting here is being done not by Greenwald or the Guardian, it was done by Snowden, who gave them a gift and at far greater personal risk. The public has a right to get the information accurately and in a timely way. With the PRISM story, that didn’t happen.

  12. thedoctorisindahaus says:

    Just as side note to a side attack. Traceroute reveals fewer hops than I’d expect. Much fewer. So even on the criteria that prism isn’t necessary because the nsa could use cooperative middlemen between your direct internet provider and the web service, this criticism was inherently false. As fast as the speed of light is on a wire (though electrons go at a fraction the speed of light on a wire), all this networking has to be paid for, like toll roads and toll bridges. Trillions of signals across all these 3rd party routers cost the big boys money in the end and they don’t network as gratuitously as you say.

    The GHCQ program which spies on masses of incoming fiber to the UK is a pretty big deal and pretty necessary for such total supervision. If all that was needed to capture the internet was a few routers in every land, why go to the bother of all this?

    There were more stops in my traceroute between my modem and my internet providers local hub (recording me or just the way they work), than there were between that hub and facebook, google, yahoo. 3rd,4th,5th parties, indeed. Not everywhere.

    Unlike real life prostitutes, corporate internet prostitutes are incredibly cheap ass consumers of 3rd party providers’ networks. Every penny counts in the boardroom. The more the company wastes, the less there is for the directors to steal in bonuses.

  13. thedoctorisindahaus says:

    See? It’s problematic above all. Not hypocritical or presumptuous or false or fair or true or good.
    Some more prism slides, have arrived.

    When you don’t have the data, all you can do is wait and see, amid opinions. Impotence feels like this. It isn’t over until it’s over (or the fat lady sings out of turn).

  14. Pingback: New PRISM slides Make Liars of Google, Facebook etc. So Why Were They Withheld? | The Rancid Honeytrap

  15. Pingback: A Brilliantly Rancid Spotlight On The NSA And Flagrant Corporate Falsehoods | THE PEOPLE'S ESTATE

  16. The Golden Apple says:

    I don’t know why some people have been getting so bent out of shape over this. The process shown in the newly released slides is pretty much EXACTLY what was described in an article Bart Gellman wrote two weeks ago (“U.S., company officials: Internet surveillance does not indiscriminately mine data”):

    “According to a more precise description contained in a classified NSA inspector general’s report, also obtained by The Post, PRISM allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers. The companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises, according to sources familiar with the PRISM process.

    According to slides describing the mechanics of the system, PRISM works as follows: NSA employees engage the system by typing queries from their desks. For queries involving stored communications, the queries pass first through the FBI’s electronic communications surveillance unit, which reviews the search terms to ensure there are no U.S. citizens named as targets.

    That unit then sends the query to the FBI’s data intercept technology unit, which connects to equipment at the Internet company and passes the results to the NSA.”

    Is that really so unclear or hard to understand? An analyst types in a term, it gets routed to equipment at the company, the user data is pulled from their server, and it’s delivered to the NSA. In other words, direct access, as the original NSA Powerpoint claimed and as The Guardian and the WA Post originally characterized it. Sure, we could argue endlessly over what “direct access” means, but the reality is that analysts are able to automatically pull data from company servers without any approval needed for individual requests.

    The story referenced above also made it clear that the “secure dropbox” explanation companies were giving in public was just a front, and that privately, executives at the companies acknowledged the existence of this “direct access” program.

    So all this criticism from the likes of Rick Perlstein or Bob Cesca about how Glenn Greenwald “botched” the story or that “the real story was the collapse of journalism” was always a bit idiotic. All they had to do was go read that article.

    • Tarzie says:

      The Golden Apple —

      Your interpretation syncs up with what my first impression of the new slides was, but Gellman tweeted today that the new slides don’t impart any confirmation of direct access and that people on both sides of the direct access question are taking from them whatever suits their bias.

      Also, even if the new slides did back up the original story, they don’t redeem the sloppiness of those original stories that invited the elaborate denials from the PRISM corporate partners. The reporting on this has a been a complete mess, and this latest equally vague iteration doesn’t help much.

      • The Golden Apple says:

        I think you’re being a bit harsh when you call the reporting a “complete mess.” There actually haven’t been any real mistakes or retractions from either the Guardian or the WA Post – just a lot of trolling from people (Perlstein, Cesca, etc) with rather obvious biases. And this has been the focus of a relatively small group of American journalists/bloggers – within the broader media and internationally, no one has been obsessing over these issues, but rather focused on the bigger picture.

        As for whether the new slides prove or disprove direct access, I guess we need to define “direct access” first. Perhaps some people interpreted that to mean the NSA literally was able to log onto the server of Facebook via a terminal window like a programmer does and start entering database queries. But that’s a little ridiculous to anyone who has any technical background. The whole point of PRISM, after all, is efficiency – to be all to pull the user data in a structured way.

      • Tarzie says:

        A piece can be a real mess without necessitating retractions. The fact is, Snowden provided Gellman, Greenwald and Co with a 41-page slide deck that the NSA uses to explain PRISM internally. I am pretty sure if I saw this slide deck and was permitted to discuss it with Snowden, I would know exactly how PRISM works and that I could write up a troll proof article about it. It’s been what, over a month now, and no one — NO ONE — except NSA staff and their PRISM partners can say with any reasonable certainty what PRISM does.

        You may think you know how PRISM works and you may think you know that all the companies have colluded to conceal a massive conspiracy between themselves and the NSA, but you have no basis for it. The data mining process you described in your earlier comment didn’t come straight from the slides. It came from Gellman’s interpretation of them, which he provided without quotes — even though it was partially dependent on interviews — and without citing any of the documents he used. In other words, like his last report, it damns no one and nothing with any authority. By his own account, it’s a ‘Rohrschach Test’ for his readers. Only two days after publishing, it’s more or less forgotten.

        Greenwald’s and Gellman’s reporting sucks because they are one, paternalists who are quite happy to decide — in cooperation with their editors — what information is safe to disclose to their readers and two, sloppy, in that having taken a paternalistic approach, don’t even bother to provide, even in broad strokes, what they know that we don’t that makes their sweeping claims about PRISM — which Greenwald, with increasingly repellant disingenuousness, asserts and then backs away from — at all believable.

  17. Pingback: My questions for the Guardian editors, @arusbridger and @janinegibson | The Rancid Honeytrap

  18. poppsikle says:

    You are smart and your questioning is important.

  19. Pingback: My Reply To Glenn Greenwald’s Comments on my Last Post | The Rancid Honeytrap

  20. The difference between all this “journalism” and, you know, actual science is that scientists do their work, write and release their report, and make the data available. is what is called “peer review”. It’s a Good Thing. Ought to be more popular.

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