Last night, I was too tired from recent travel to do any real work, so I skipped the 60 Minutes segment hosted by John Miller that delved more deeply into the NSA than any news organization had been allowed to do before now. Because I was tweeting about the NFL games during the afternoon and evening, I caught plenty of the instant reaction on Twitter to Miller’s report. Most of it was sharply critical, with complaints that Miller — who disclosed his own earlier work with the NSA — was too deferential to NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander and other officials, accusing him of tossing softballs instead of asking tough questions.
For instance, the report starts off with this exchange according to the 60 Minutes transcript, but doesn’t include a follow-up:
John Miller: There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?
Gen. Keith Alexander: No, that’s not true. NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order. Today, we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.
John Miller: The NSA as we sit here right now is listening to a universe of 50 or 60 people that would be considered U.S. persons?
Gen. Keith Alexander: Less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. persons.
There is definitely journalistic value in allowing the NSA to provide a full response to the allegations made over the last several months, mostly from the massive data theft from Edward Snowden. The segment includes some potentially new information about cyberattacks from hostile states, and an explanation of how metadata works to chain potential bad actors together into a pattern without (supposedly) intruding on the communications of Americans. To the extent that NSA reveals anything about their operations, it at least has the potential for making Americans better informed about the operation of their government and the surveillance that Congress authorized in the wake of 9/11.
However, Miller never bothers to press Alexander on his misleading testimony to Congress, not even to get a denial. Miller never even mentions Congress in this segment, where legislators have had grave reservations about NSA activities long before Snowden took off with his cache. Miller does briefly raise the issue of the FISA court’s reprimands of the NSA, but drops it after a brief Alexander denial:
Gen. Keith Alexander: No. That’s not true. Under FISA, NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order.
John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.
Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.
How are we to know? Another term missing from this report is “oversight,” which seems to be significantly lacking both in Congress and in court. Miller never asks Alexander or anyone else about that issue, which has been repeatedly raised by Senator Ron Wyden and former Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the author of the PATRIOT Act who now believes that the NSA abuses it.
Given how insular the NSA has been about its activities, this is at least a huge missed opportunity. Check it out for yourselves.