The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Tuesday released its Annual Transparency Report, shedding light on how often the government collects information by using its intelligence agencies. The next day, FBI director James Comey revealed that the bureau was unable to hack almost half of the encrypted devices it had search warrants for. Comey’s statement and the findings of the report stand in contrast to the public belief – often reinforced by leaks – that the U.S. government closely monitors its citizens through a plethora of media and devices.
The American people have always had an affinity for conspiracy theories, especially those involving the government. Sometimes the public is even right, such as during the 1970s, when a series of investigative committees (including the Rockefeller Commission) uncovered the depth and extent to which the intelligence community (IC) had unlawfully observed U.S. citizens. In recent years, especially in light of the digital boom and repeated leaks of sensitive information, such conspiracy theories have been thriving.
There is good reason to be pleased with ODNI’s report despite public concerns, as it arises from two important documents: the statutory requirements of the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015, and the IC’s internal document entitled Principles of Intelligence Transparency. The IC’s commitment to transparency is far from trivial; such organizations routinely use their need to protect sensitive assets to justify concealing information that should often be in the public domain.
The report further demonstrates that the IC’s surveillance efforts, especially those aimed at U.S. citizens, are somewhat limited:
- The NSA collected information on only 42 targets; and the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) “probable cause” orders issued is estimated at 1,687 targets, of whom 336 are “U.S. persons.”
- The total number of individual "targets" tracked through Internet surveillance and other means under FISA's Section 702 has reached a total of 106,469 – not insignificant, but still relatively low considering the IC’s global interests.
- An estimated 5,288 queries for information on "known U.S. persons" were conducted from NSA and CIA databases. If we add Comey’s statement to this statistic, and considering the significant national security challenges the nation is facing, it seems that the IC’s penetration into private civilian lives isn’t that wide – contrary to the portrayal of the recent WikiLeaks revelations.
However, a deeper analysis of the report raises some concerns. Despite the fact that the NSA only collected information on 42 targets, it amassed over 151 million phone call records by collecting data on numbers that are "two jumps" away from a targeted phone. Records are collected from any number that called or was called by the target number, as well as every number each of those numbers were linked to. Additionally, searches on a "known U.S. person of unminimized noncontents information" (i.e. queries specifically looking for Americans by identifying metadata) have gone from 9,500 in 2013, to 30,335 in 2016. Furthermore, these numbers are only based on the NSA and FBI’s data, excluding the CIA and other agencies. Other statistics display the same trend: from a multi-year perspective, the IC is collecting more data on more people.
So who’s right? Is big brother monitoring the American people? Does the IC infiltrate too many intimate aspects of their lives? Or are these operations limited and well supervised by other branches of government?
The answer is probably both: the IC has impressive and troubling access to private information, and this trend will only intensify as information technology becomes ubiquitous. However, the IC is also making a clear and concerted effort to maintain transparency.
Of that course that isn’t always the case. Transparency is often perceived as a burden by intelligence agencies, including those operating in democratic regimes. For example, Israel’s prime minister appoints the head of the Mossad with no other approval by the government or any other entity; France only regulated internal information gathering in 2015.
Could the IC exploit its power to conduct unlawful operations, or could the information gathered be used by unauthorized elements? Of course it could, and it has happened before – but that only proves how important the practices of transparency are. The American public should demand that its intelligence community continue providing as much information as possible, and praise it when it does so. This transparency should not be taken for granted.
Shay Hershkovitz, Ph.D., is chief strategy officer at Wikistrat, Inc. and a political science professor at Tel Aviv University specializing in intelligence studies. He is also a former IDF intelligence officer whose book, "Aman Comes To Light," deals with the history of the Israeli intelligence community.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.