back to article Intelligence director pulls national security BS on spying question

The director of national intelligence (DNI) has refused to say whether US spying agencies are using legislation specifically intended to cover only foreigners in order to spy on American citizens. The unclassified letter [PDF] from Dan Coats to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and released by the legislator, comes in response to a …

  1. Mark 85 Silver badge

    I suspect that Sen. Wyden is trying to get a bit of the "secret" fog cleared and the info in front of the public. Which seems to be pretty normal for the government... if in doubt, hit the "classified" button.

    If Coats doesn't respond or lies, he could be held in contempt of Congress. There's a dangerous game being played out there. Not just for those involved at government level but also for us citizens.

  2. Ole Juul

    down the rabbit hole

    The definition of intelligence is obviously in the eyes of the beholder.

  3. elDog

    the Apparatus is much bigger than the US Gov

    The interlinked organizations and individuals that profit on manufacturing, selling, receiving/publicising these tidbits is many times bigger than the CIA/NSA/FSB/ETC. Their agents are free to roam between countries and allegiances. Individually they make millions of $s apiece, much of it not as reported income.

    The visible pieces of intelligence within the US (CIA/NRG/DIA/etc.) are bureaucrats who can't wait to server their 20 years and then move on to the Carlyle Group or Blackwater (whatever it's called now.)

    Shills that testify in front of the congress shills are all playing a game of pantomime. Have you ever noticed that no one really sweats; no one really gives a damn. They'll get their dacha or a beachfront on the Chesapeake Bay.

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: the Apparatus is much bigger than the US Gov

      The apparatus is self-feeding and self-sustaining too.

      A good example here would be the operation of said apparatus in Eastern Europe and ex-USSR in the 1990-es and 2000s. The wall, fell, mission accomplished, right?

      Yes, but if mission is accomplished, then that means that agent Doe is without a job and all those precious kiddie college funds are at risk. So what does agent Doe do - continue as if nothing has happened financing any and every possible lunatic on the Russian periphery as well as recurring "regime change operations" in ex-Soviet block countries. Rinse, repeat until it backfires in the face, then more some.

      Forever war is essential in feeding the monster and it will take an economic and/or political crisis of proportions USA (and other western nations) has never seen for it to be dismantled.

  4. Schultz

    Language ...

    It all comes down to what you mean with 'information', 'collecting', ... You say tomato, I say tomato, but who really knows what you mean. Let's just agree to disagree and carry on with business as usual.

    At least they still go through the motions and attempt to obfuscate, as opposed to throwing the questioner into jail. So there is still that little bit of respect for the general public, right?

  5. Cynical Observer

    In case you were wondering how exactly you can use a law to achieve the exact opposite of what it states, here is a rundown:

    Good enough to be worthy of Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22

    "What's good for Milo Minderbinder*, is good for the country"

    * Replace with state agency of choice

  6. EricM

    "national security" is the "deus vult" of modern times

    It cannot be questioned. It is not accepted to doubt its motives. It can be used selectively at will. And it can be used to argue pro or contra everyone or anything. A universal get-out-of-jail or go-into-jail card, depending on how it's used. Too convinient ...

  7. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    " How can Congress reauthorize this surveillance when the administration is playing games with basic questions about this program?"

    s/reauthorize/continue to fund/

    That'll get his attention, if only in retrospect if the implied threat gets carried through.

  8. Sir Runcible Spoon


    All laws should have an executive summary that contains information pertaining to the spirit of the law that is being put on the books.

    Doing this would allow judges to ascertain whether the law was used for it's intended purpose or has been subverted through the use of vague terms or weasel words.

    Subverting the spirit of a law should also be a crime.

    1. teebie

      Re: Laws

      Thanks to Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Hart [1992] UKHL 3 judges in England are, under certain cirucmstances, allowed interpret the law bases on what MPs said in the house of commons while passing the law. Presumably while chuckling to themselves quietly.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Laws

      Subverting the spirit of a law should also be a crime.

      Depends on the legal system. The US uses "letter of law", which means that if it is made illegal to kill someone with a baseball bat, using a cricket bat would be acceptable. Swiss law, for instance, is "spirit of law", so in the aforementioned case the judge would tell you that the idea behind this law is that you shouldn't use any bat-shaped items to kill people*.

      You see more creative abuse of the US system because that's simply more in the news, but spirit of law is also not without flaws. The above example, for instance, could lead to an argument that using a gun would be OK* - the debate simply shifts to a different point, and so do the excuses.

      There is a benefit in a "spirit of the law" approach in that it introduces an element of personal responsibility into the equation, aka the incorrectly named "common" sense (incorrect as it is clearly not that common): even if it is not explicitly stated that Y is verboten, you should have been able to work out by yourself that if X is a no-go, it implies that Y is probably not a good idea either. It generally makes for shorter, less convoluted laws because you don't have to name every aspect and exception, but it can lead to more complex debates because you're dealing with interpretation.

      This is just my take, btw, IANAL :)

      * Not a perfect example because it's simply "thy shalt not kill unless authorised by the state or as ultimate act of self defence" but it's just an illustration.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        Re: Laws

        I wasn't arguing for one over the other, I don't see why we can't have both.

        A written set of laws that cover as many bases as possible (as intended) - plus a section that gives an idea of what the law is, and is not, intended to cover in the general sense.

        1. dgc03052

          Re: Laws

          A written set of laws that cover as many bases as possible (as intended) - plus a section that gives an idea of what the law is, and is not, intended to cover in the general sense.

          It would be nice to have a written letter of the law, with layman based explanations on intent or examples, and all that. Not that I ever see it happening.

          It could be interesting though, image the laws starting to include the usual: "The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119"

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Laws

            It could be interesting though, image the laws starting to include the usual: "The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119"

            Although I rather like that idea, the problem is not actually how the laws are written, but the language they are expressed in. When you try to accurately and unambiguisely describe something, you run into the problem that English may appear simple, but is capable of incredible nuance in the hands of a skilled author - and lawyer. This is why you end up with "legalese" instead of garden variety English: you state X, than you have to explicitly qualify that when you say X, you don't mean Y and do not infer Z, followed by the problem that even your qualifying sentence actually needs a qualifier of its own to exclude any more creative interpretations.

            English is a fantastic language for humour, jokes and leaving things unsaid but still convey what you mean, but the consequence is that it's a swine to really pin something down in writing :).

            Legal German, for instance, is much simpler because German is by its nature more descriptive and precise. Of course, as a living language it also has its fun parts (otherwise politics would be nigh impossible) but you don't immediately end up with seven ways to interpret a sentence. As a consequence, expressing a law in German is a shorter exercise than one in English and not quite such a mind bender to read (if you speak the language, of course :) ).

  9. Christoph

    Not the first time

    It's not the first time the US has done things that are specifically forbidden.

    The 4th amendment says "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"

    So how the police justify blatantly robbing people of cash, cars, goods, and even houses while not charging them with anything? ("Civil forfeiture")

    Simple - they aren't seizing the property from a citizen, they are charging the property itself with a crime and seizing it.

    1. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: Not the first time

      Civil forfeiture is more a fifth and fourteenth amendment issue than the fourth. Many, probably most, seizures that lead to civil forfeiture follow consensual searches. What is missing is prompt due process to return the property to its owner.

      Note that civil forfeiture has a history of 350 years or more dating back to English statutory and common law, which the US adopted essentially intact in its first few years.

  10. Nick Z

    Secrecy and democracy are incompatible with each other

    The problem is secrecy itself.

    Consent isn't valid, unless it's an informed consent. That's what the law says in medical type of consent and other types of consent. And that's how it is with the consent from the people to be governed by their government. This consent needs to be informed, or else it's not valid.

    When the government is hiding not just some specific operations but the laws and rules which it follows. Then it's fair to say that the consent from the people to be governed by their government isn't valid anymore.

    What we have now is just an illusion of democracy for propaganda and deception purposes. It's like the Soviet Union also claimed to be democratic, because they had regular elections. It was done for propaganda purposes.

  11. Harry Stottle

    Obviously the answer is "Yes"

    am I missing some subtlety here?

    Saying "No" - like Clapper did - would only be risky if, like Clapper's example, it was a lie

    Ergo, the answer is obviously Yes. The only security threat might lie in explaining in exactly which circumstances the illegal spying on citizens takes place. (such as when the citizen is talking to someone not on American soil - which I believe is already exempted, but you get the gist)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Obviously the answer is "Yes"

      In theory if either of the possible answers to a yes/no question would give up classified information then the correct response is "I can neither confirm nor deny" whatever.

      You can't say "No" even if it's true if "Yes" would be classified information.

      So, regardless of the truth, Clapper shouldn't answer at all if an answer of "yes" would be classified.

      However, AFAIK it is ILLEGAL under US law to classify something so as to avoid admission of wrongdoing, and I'm not sure why else the existence of such activities would be classified, the scope and amount, sure, but the existence? When the activity is flatly forbidden by law? Why is this classified other than to avoid an admission or wrongdoing?

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