The CIA Might Have Your Password After All

According to journalist Barton Gellman, a confidant of Edward Snowden, the spy agency’s viral account is funny—but not telling the whole truth.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
July 11, 2014, 12:58 p.m.

The CIA has been earn­ing rave re­views for the pitch-per­fect com­edy of its newly cre­ated Twit­ter ac­count.

But while fa­cetious tweets like “No, we don’t know where Tupac is” or “We can neither con­firm nor deny that this is our first tweet” have lent a little lev­ity to an in­tel­li­gence com­munity bur­ied by Ed­ward Snowden’s air­ing of its spy-pro­gram laun­dry, the com­edy has not dis­suaded journ­al­ists from fact-check­ing at least one of the ac­count’s claims.

In a lengthy art­icle Fri­day, Wash­ing­ton Post journ­al­ist Bar­ton Gell­man at­temp­ted to an­swer some ques­tions that have sur­faced since he re­por­ted last week on a new Snowden leak. Bur­ied deep in the re­port is a two-para­graph gem that says the CIA’s Twit­ter, while funny, is also propagat­ing mis­in­form­a­tion.

The CIA opened a Twit­ter ac­count last month and has used cheeky hu­mor to win a large fol­low­ing in a short time. On Monday, the ac­count sent out this an­nounce­ment: “No, we don’t know your pass­word, so we can’t send it to you.” It went vir­al, with more than 12,000 retweets.

As it hap­pens, the [Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency] files we ex­amined in­cluded 1,152 “min­im­ized U.S. pass­words,” mean­ing pass­words to Amer­ic­an e-mail and chat ac­counts in­ter­cep­ted from U.S. data links. Don’t ex­pect tech sup­port from Langley, but the CIA does have ac­cess to that raw traffic.

Those num­bers come from a batch of 160,000 in­ter­cep­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions provided by Snowden, a tiny sample of the In­ter­net data the NSA routinely col­lects. U.S. com­mu­nic­a­tions that are in­cid­ent­ally col­lec­ted dur­ing sur­veil­lance of a for­eign tar­get are re­quired to be “min­im­ized,” mean­ing there are lim­its to how they can be searched. But such searches are not for­bid­den, and, Gell­man notes, agen­cies can dis­trib­ute U.S. iden­tit­ies in re­ports to one an­oth­er.

Gell­man’s big NSA ex­posé last week claimed that the vast ma­jor­ity of In­ter­net ac­counts mon­itored by U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies do not be­long to over­seas tar­gets, but in­stead to or­din­ary In­ter­net users who com­mu­nic­ate dir­ectly with those tar­gets.

The im­plic­a­tions of Gell­man’s story are pro­found and ser­i­ous, and par­tially re­fute some find­ings in a re­port from the pres­id­ent’s in­de­pend­ent pri­vacy-watch­dog pan­el, which de­clared the NSA’s for­eign sur­veil­lance tech­niques leg­al and ef­fect­ive.

The CIA Twit­ter ac­count’s may be at­tempt­ing to lever­age lev­ity for flex­ib­il­ity with the facts, but that’s un­likely to quell the horde of anti-sur­veil­lance act­iv­ists who claim the in­tel­li­gence com­munity has per­sist­ently been mis­lead­ing and dis­hon­est about the true mag­nitude of its spy pro­grams.

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