The Obama administration made history during the 2016 election by releasing statistics for the first time showing how many times government officials sought to unmask the names of Americans captured in accidental National Security Agency intercepts. There was just one problem: the number of affected Americans was grossly underreported.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, now under new management with President Donald Trump, confirms that the 654 unmaskings reported last year for fiscal 2015 was underreported by a factor of more than three times. The correct number was actually 2,232.
So how does an agency entrusted with producing some of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence and secrets get its math so mixed up? Apparently, it was a case of providing statistics from the wrong category.
WATCH | Republicans lawmakers say they are angry, but not surprised by a new report which shows U.S. intelligence included unredacted names of U.S. citizens in thousands of intelligence documents last year.
National intelligence officials say the 654 figure reported last year actually represented the number of times a government official had a request approved to unmask an American name and not the total number of U.S. persons’ identities that actually were unredacted after the fact in intelligence reports, as had been represented in last year’s report.
“We noticed the mistake when compiling the 2016 statistics this spring and decided we should correct it,” a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the change explained to Circa. “We wanted the numbers we were releasing to be consistent, apples to apples. The number that should have been reported was 2,232.”
An ODNI spokesman confirmed it was a case of mistaken statistical categories.
"The NSA for the Calendar Year 2015 provided ODNI with the number of requests for unmaskingas opposed to the number of identities released in response to an unmasking request. It’s an apples to oranges thing between CY 2015 and CY 2016,” the spokesperson said. “ If you compare last year’s report to this year’s report using the original metric of requests compared to the current metric of identities, it appears as if there was an exponential increase when, in fact, there was a decrease in the number of identities released in response to a specific request.”
So when such a whopper is made, how does the intelligence community fix the problem? In a double-asterisk footnote in its lengthy 2017 transparency report.
“For this statistic, last year’s Annual Statistical Transparency Report provided the number of approved requests(i.e.,654) for unmasking of U.S.person identities, rather than the number of U.S. person identities that were released," the little-noticed footnote read.
"A single request may contain multiple U.S.person identities. This year’s report provides the number of U.S. person identities referred to by name or title released in response to specific requests to unmask those identities. The number of U.S. person identities that NSA released during calendar year 2015 in response to specific requests to unmask and identity was 2,232, which was the number that should have been reported in last year’s report,” the footnote added.
Republicans on the various congressional committees investigating the Russian election interference and the NSA’s use of foreign targeted intelligence to spy on Americans may look critically at the explanation for why last year’s numbers were erroneous.
“Transparency isn’t any good if the numbers you expose aren’t correct. And there seems to have been a lot of downplaying of unmaskings so I think this a question worth exploring. Who approved the inaccurate number and was it an innocent mistake or part of a larger pattern,” said a congressional aide directly involved in the investigations, speaking only on condition of anonymity because they were not approved to talk to reporters.
Republicans want to question former Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who originally denied know about any unmasking of identities of Trump campaign associates. But after Circa reported she had in fact requested or read several intelligence reports with the names of Trump associates unmasked, Rice reversed course and acknowledged she had done so but insisted her intentions were national security related and not political.
Rice turned down a request to testify before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing earlier this week. But expect GOP investigators to keep up their pursuit to put her under oath.
The NSA is allowed under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to spy on foreign powers without a court warrant but the law prohibits the targeting of Americans for such surveillance. If the NSA accidentally intercepts Americans or information about them overseas, it is supposed to legally put the information in a virtual lock box.
But starting in 2011, former President Obama made it easier to access that information, essentially creating keys for intelligence professionals and even his own political aides to unlock the NSA’s lock box to consume surveillance on Americans.
Circa reported last week that since those changes, the number of requests to search NSA records for Americans’ information more than tripled under the former administration from about 10,000 in 2013 to more than 25,000 in 2016.
Circa also has asked the Trump administration to declassify and make public the total number of times Americans in sensitive jobs like Congress, presidential campaigns, journalism, the medical profession, the legal profession and the federal judiciary either had their names searched in the NSA database or their names unmasked in NSA intelligence reports.