back to article NSA to Congress: Our spy programs don’t work, aren’t used, or have gone wrong – now can you permanently reauthorize them?

The NSA was unable to give a single example of how one of its most controversial spying programs has been useful in the fight against terrorism in a Congressional hearing on Wednesday morning. The repeated refusal by NSA senior official Susan Morgan to provide any detail whatsoever about how the program - which the NSA and FBI …

  1. Oengus Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Why

    These have been reauthorised long enough to be able to show results but the NSA can't give an example of their success.

    These have repeatedly overstepped their authorised purpose and seem to be unable to correct this.

    The NSA don't have any appetite to fix the issues with the programs.

    The DNI (and other "intelligence" staff) repeatedly lie to or stall replying to Congress and the Senate.

    The question has to be Why on earth would the senate ever reauthorise this legislation permanently?

    Also, If I so blatantly lied to Congress or the Senate I would be thrown in jail why haven't these liars been punished?

    1. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Why

      Because they probably have a lot of blackmail evidence against a lot of US politicians.

      "Hey Senator XYZ will you reauthorize this spying or will we release the videos of you having underage sex instead?"

      1. kmedcalf

        Re: Why

        That's why the FBI is at the hearing. They have the "Drag Queen Files".

        1. iron Silver badge

          Re: Why

          What does J. Edna have to do with this?

    2. trindflo

      Re: Why

      After 9/11 it was easy to point at anyone that was not on-board with "get tough" measures as weak or unpatriotic. The initial authorization was called the USAPATRIOT act. The rhetoric is wearing thin, but that doesn't mean a bunch of legislators in fear for their jobs can't be cowed again. And there is no reason to believe there will be any serious consequences, so why not give it another try.

      As for throwing them in jail, for the most part it comes down to "the state does not consent to be sued". As long as they can claim with a straight face they believed they were doing their job it is almost impossible.

    3. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: Why

      IIts the garage effect. Everyone who has lived in a place for any length of time knows how easy it is to fill a garage (or attic) with crap "that will be useful someday". Usually "someday" never happens and it eventually becomes a chore for you or your executor to sort out. The NSA has a bunch of surveillance tools, many of dubious usefulness, but it won't want to give any of them up because they might be useful....you never know......

      (For those who lack a garage or attic then there's also that kitchen drawer.....)

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Why

        I found a use for something in the garage this week... Not sure that quite justifies the amount of stuff there, but hey...

  2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Can't or wont?

    I can see where the NSA/FBI are hesitant to spill many details to Congress at large. But Feinstein is vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. One would expect that she has the clearance to be entrusted with at least an overview of these programs. On the other hand, Feinstein's refusal to be briefed in a closed session indicates that something odd is afoot.

    Never mind Denmark, something is rotten in DC.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Can't or wont?

      "On the other hand, Feinstein's refusal to be briefed in a closed session indicates that something odd is afoot."

      Something odd such as in insistence on transparency?

      1. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: Can't or wont?

        Or to put it more cynically, currently Feinstein can make political hay out of beating on the NSA about privacy issues (quite rightly imo). If they actually have a hidden, but real, justification, it puts her in a difficult political position of dropping her crusade against the NSA, but being unable to say why.

        And, to be fair, if the NSA did have some real successes, there's really nothing to stop them at least mentioning them in general terms in public, and then giving a more full briefing in closed session, so to my mind at least, they probably don't have any obvious examples to give, probably just useful, but non-essential confirmation for information from other sources.

    2. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Can't or wont?

      Even if the full details are classified, surely they should be able to provide something in an unclassified setting. I think the reason is because they can't point to anything useful these programs have done, but don't want to admit it publicly. In a closed session they can admit that but claim "we're working diligently to address the shortcomings but need more time" and it would provide the senators cover to vote for it, claiming "we heard enough in the closed session to believe it is useful" without anyone being able to question them.

      I think Feinstein doesn't want the closed session because she knows it will be too easy for senators to vote yes on this given that cover. Historically she has supported every spying program, but at some points even enablers of the surveillance state have to reach their limit.

      1. Drew Scriver Bronze badge

        Re: Can't or wont?

        At the very least the NSA should be telling them how many times the information has been useful.

        Their refusal to do even that leads me to suspect the answer is "zero".

    3. 2Nick3

      Re: Can't or wont?

      I can see a case where they wouldn't want to expose capabilities with an example ("We were able to hack the camera on Little Bad Guy's cell phone, seeing he was running Android Marshmallow and connected on 3G on a Tuesday in October when it was raining, and see that Big Bad Guy was there with him.") but you would think they could at least say "We captured Big Bad Guy."

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Do US legislators have the power to withhold budget? If so it might be time to start using it.

    1. JohnFen Silver badge

      Yes, for the most part. Constitutionally, Congress has the sole power to decide how much money is to be spent on what. The reality is more complicated than that -- but Congress absolutely has the power to make it simple if they choose, and they do so when they feel strongly about something.

      In this case, though, even doing that isn't necessary -- Congress is to decide whether or not to reauthorize the law that grants the spy agencies these powers. They certainly can, and might, decide not to do so, which puts an end to it (legally, anyway). The "power of the purse string" is not necessary here.

      1. DCFusor Silver badge

        But give an example of Congress ever cutting off an existing program of any size past dog-catcher. I dare you. Somehow it just never happens.

        And hey, these guys specialize in law breaking. So making it against the law to do what they do is a joke anyway.

        Anyone remember the ex-post-facto removal of liability for the telcos breaking the law in support of this in the first place? I do. Somehow the IC always gets its way -

        Does it really matter if it's due to compromat on the lawmakers, or just ignoring them? Rogue is rogue. It's probably both.

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        "Congress is to decide whether or not to reauthorize the law that grants the spy agencies these powers."

        The US spy agencies have been caught so many times doing things they shouldn't that it's useless to formally give them permission or withhold it. What should happen is a big accounting on money spent and where. Any funds that can't be accounted for will be cut out of the next budget and again and again. If they don't have spare change lying around, they'll find it very hard to do as many illegal things.

    2. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Do US legislators have the power to withhold budget?

      Yes, however, this doesn't stop someone from "diverting" someone else's budget to something else.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Or using that sweet drug money from the poppy fields in Afghanistan we restored...

    3. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Specifically, the HOUSE has that power. All budgetary and spending bills, per the Constitution, MUST start in the House. But remember, it's a split Congress right now.

      1. holmegm Bronze badge

        And the democrats control the House.

      2. Marketing Hack Silver badge
        Headmaster

        By Constitution, appropriations bills START in the House, but the Senate can change amounts, timelines or delete whole appropriations. That then starts the House-Senate conference process where the two houses get together in a joint committee to work out differences between bills passed by each house, such as one house passing $100 million for an appropriation, and the other house wanting $200 million for the same appropriation.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          And then a six-year old comes along and decides to take the money from building housing for the military to building a steel fence that's easily cut through....

  4. ExampleOne

    So they want Congress to renew authorisations for programs that appear to have routinely turned into illegal data dragnets? Does anyone really think withholding the authorisation will end the illegal behaviour given they are already doing it?

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Should they decide that it is a real problem and they want it stopped, they have quite a few powers that would make it easy to do. First, they refuse to reauthorize. Then, they demand monthly if not more frequent meetings about how the programs have been shut down and any privacy risks they might pose in the future. If the programs aren't shut down fast enough, budgets get slashed. If the people running the programs lie, they're tried in court for perjury and put in prison. That's what could happen.

      That's what could have already happened for a lot of years and to many people. They absolutely have the ability to get this situation fixed. Sadly, I have seen little indication that we are making progress on getting them to want to. Since these programs have started, they have been vehemently supported by presidents and legislators of both parties no matter how much obviously illegal and technically legal but clearly wrong activities were publicly known. Perhaps I need more optimism, but I don't think much will happen any time soon.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        They can even write a strongly worded letter..like Hans Brix...

        (America, world police reference)

        When no one up there follows the law, appealing to legal remedies is kind of a waste of time.

        Cognitive dissonance much?

  5. Withdrawn

    None of this really matters

    The NSA is already collecting beyond legal authorization. No reason to believe that will change in December. Also, they don't really care about funding from Congress. It's just a nice bonus to them. They bring in far more funding from other sources, off the books of course.

    1. kmedcalf

      Re: None of this really matters

      You mean like their drugs, arms, and money laundering businesses?

  6. Drew Scriver Bronze badge

    The only thing that should be permanent about the authorization is to require re-authorization every other year or so.

  7. vaporland

    the senators on that committee...

    ...will all receive phone calls from "UNKNOWN" caller ID at 4am tonight, playing a recording of them with their mistress / live boy / dead girl.

    subsequently, the legislation will be passed.

    same as it ever was...

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: the senators on that committee...

      Sounds risky. One or more of them could say Publish and Be Damned then claim all the blackmail is a bunch of Deepfakes.

      1. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: the senators on that committee...

        Fake nudes..

        Anyway, when you're a star they let you do it, you can do anything.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: the senators on that committee...

      Politicians at the Federal level has so compromised themselves by the time they're elected, they are big fat targets for the spy agencies. Remember when they got caught wiretapping the (house?) intelligence oversight committee?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No such thing as innocent anymore. Just "Not yet guilty".

    See also: UK retention of fingerprints and DNA "just in case"

    1. Danny 2 Silver badge

      Re: No such thing as innocent anymore. Just "Not yet guilty".

      I was thinking that when Matt Hancock announced the NHS would test all babies DNA.

      Every murderer and terrorist was once a baby.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: No such thing as innocent anymore. Just "Not yet guilty".

        "Every murderer and terrorist was once a baby."

        True, just not necessarily in the same country though ;) (not wishing to pick on immigrants - just pointing out that not every adult in country X was a baby in country X)

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Gimp

    "Congress should be confident enough that it can approve them permanently.”"

    Is she f**king joking.

    Basically

    "You signed this blank piece of paper 6 years in a row. Why not save yourself the hassle and just give me your permanent signature to copy?"

    And "We can't tell you anything about how many plots have been discovered or how many US citizens we spy on."

    with the unstated message "And there's not a single thing you can do about it"

    Accountability.

    It's a sign of weakness. :-{

    This is the true total arrogance of career data fetishist.

    1. LDS Silver badge

      Re: "Congress should be confident enough that it can approve them permanently.”"

      They should call it the Surveillance Technological Absolute Systemic Imperishable Act.

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

        Re: "Congress should be confident enough that it can approve them permanently.”"

        Shurelyy the Surveillance Higherarchical Intelligence Technological Absolute Systemis Act.

  10. Giovani Tapini Silver badge

    Although I agree the NSA have not really provided a blazing list of sucesses

    I also have some sympathy with the idea that spilling details of operational capabilities in public forum is also probably a very bad idea too. Given current MO of the POTUS giving away even general detail is likely to see it tweeted in a few hours. Much as I think some oversight is a good thing, it has a great potential to undermine their ability to operate at all.

    Although perhaps perversely, at least for their technical surveillance methods, this could create the need for a Ponzi style need to increase budgets annually, as every hearing giving away capabilities means they need to be replaced...

    And yes, I do believe they have been operating outside their operational needs, I don't need to get flamed for that :) It is nicely covered in the above posts.

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Although I agree the NSA have not really provided a blazing list of sucesses

      I also have some sympathy with the idea that spilling details of operational capabilities in public forum is also probably a very bad idea too

      But that's not what was asked for. Congress simply asked for a measure of how successful the programs have been, and they refused even to answer that.

    2. Filippo

      Re: Although I agree the NSA have not really provided a blazing list of sucesses

      If capability and accountability are so much at odds that there is absolutely no way to have one without hurting the other, then a balance will have to be struck, and capability will just have to suffer a bit.

      Unaccountable agencies are intrinsically harmful to democracy, and that harm cannot be ignored altogether.

      Providing sufficient information to guarantee accountability might hurt capability a bit, but I really do not believe that it will cripple it.

  11. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

    The United Scaredycats of America

    Even if they do suspend funding, then I doubt they can be trusted to fully shut it down anyway, and I will assume that some dark shady twats in the shadows will already have thought up ways of contingency funding this on the quiet...

    "You didn't think they actually spent ten thousand dollars for a hammer and thirty thousand for a toilet seat, did you?"

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: The United Scaredycats of America

      Why not? They got a jet engine for only $600 at the same time IINM.

    2. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: The United Scaredycats of America

      #Swordfish

      1. Someone Else Silver badge

        Re: The United Scaredycats of America

        #EnemyOfTheState

      2. Keven E

        Re: The United Scaredycats of America

        https://youtu.be/YulMP53mtcg

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: The United Scaredycats of America

      "You didn't think they actually spent ten thousand dollars for a hammer and thirty thousand for a toilet seat, did you?"

      Yes, they did. When some idiot engineer fresh out of university specs a toilet seat or hammer to five decimal places, it's costs that much to meet spec.

      1. GrumpyKiwi

        Re: The United Scaredycats of America

        Sigh!

        When you want a hammer that doesn't EVER generate sparks when you're using it to adjust a fuze in an environment full of gunpower. When you want a toilet seat that goes into an airplane that doesn't put out toxic smoke in the event of it catching fire or shatter into razor sharp fragments.

        Like most things designed for specialised environments where the product run is short, the costs per item are high.

        There are many many things you can criticise various militaries for spending and/or wasting their money on - spending money to make things safer for their solders, sailors and airmen is not one of them.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The United Scaredycats of America

          "When you want a hammer that doesn't EVER generate sparks when you're using it to adjust a fuze in an environment full of gunpower."

          Who created such an environment in the first place? It shouldn't require the use of percussive maintenance (which due to physics can always introduce the risk of sparking due to the sheer friction of the impact) to adjust anything that important. Who didn't plan ahead enough?

          "When you want a toilet seat that goes into an airplane that doesn't put out toxic smoke in the event of it catching fire or shatter into razor sharp fragments."

          Is it really that important in such an edge case? Did a toilet seat really result in additional deaths in an airplane crash against such things as the compartmentalization of the toilet chamber and so on? And anyway, why not just use a metal toilet seat? Or do what some third-world nations do and have no seat and make people sit on the rim?

  12. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    s/a decision/kompromat/g

    But then, as the NSA knows only too well, what senators say in public and what they end up doing when confronted with a decision are often not entirely consistent

  13. Mahhn

    so depressing

    there is no hope, there is no freedom, there is no privacy. we are slaves, I don't want to die but it seams the only escape is suicide. Please kill me.

  14. Il'Geller

    Artificial Intelligence - a gift from above for the NSA! The introduction of AI leads to the creation of AI database, where all information is easily controlled in a legally permitted manner, and there is no need to control its users! If the information is malicious in nature, it is instantly possible to identify and remove it.

  15. crystallake

    It is mostly about Parallel Construction, to benefit the DEA and the locals. This is why they can't cite a single example to justify keeping things as they are.

  16. jason_derp

    Why not just lie?

    Why wouldn't this guy just lie about specific instances where the program he wants renewed worked? Nobody would look into it, and I've never seen anybody face consequences for lying to congress. Just make shit up and call it a day.

  17. Marty McFly
    Thumb Down

    Deleted the data....

    ....yeah, right. Took it off-line maybe. Removed it from analysis probably. But I'll bet there is a backup parked somewhere just in case. After all the lies and deception, suddenly they are being truthful on this one item. I may be gullible, but I'm not stupid.

    1. Danny 2 Silver badge

      Re: Deleted the data....

      I may be gullible and stupid, but I'm not buying that.

      I've seen TV programmes and films where someone pays off a blackmailer on condition that is the only copy of the video/photos/data. As if you can trust the word of any blackmailer.

  18. fidodogbreath Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Tools

    When an intelligence or law enforcement organization describes something as a "tool in our toolbox," run for the hills. That's the shit that has brought us blanket police video surveillance, Five Eyes bulk capture of basically every electronic communication on the planet, automated number plate recognition cameras on every cop car (and every third lamp post), indiscriminate use of IMSI catchers, attempting to ban encryption (for all but the elites, of course) over "going dark" on terrorists, military weapons and tactics for "local" police, etc.

    It's a euphemism for turning democracies into police states, full stop.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Tools

      Not an option. The hills are being watched, too (aerial, satellite, and drone cameras).

      Coming soon: the Panopticon (for safety, security, and the children). Either bend over or risk losing your one and only (meaning you fail parenting forever).

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