Since the very first Snowden leak a year ago, one of the more common refrains from defenders of the program is “but it’s just metadata, not actual content, so what’s the big deal?” Beyond the fact that other programs do collect content, we’ve pointed out time and time again that the “just metadata, don’t worry” argument only makes sense if you don’t know what metadata reveals. Anyone with any knowledge of the subject knows that metadata reveals a ton of private info. Furthermore, we’ve even pointed out that the NSA regularly uses “just metadata” to pick targets for drone assassinations. As one person called it: “death by unreliable metadata.”
So we know that the US kills people based on metadata, but given how hard the NSA and its defenders have sought to play down the collection of metadata, it’s somewhat amazing to find out that the always on-message former director of both the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, flat out admitted that “we kill people based on metadata.” According to David Cole:
Of course knowing the content of a call can be crucial to establishing a particular threat. But metadata alone can provide an extremely detailed picture of a person’s most intimate associations and interests, and it’s actually much easier as a technological matter to search huge amounts of metadata than to listen to millions of phone calls. As NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker has said, “metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.” When I quoted Baker at a recent debate at Johns Hopkins University, my opponent, General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, called Baker’s comment “absolutely correct,” and raised him one, asserting, “We kill people based on metadata.”
You can see Hayden make that statement at the 18 minute mark of this video — though he immediately tries to qualify the statement by saying we don’t kill people based on this metadata. Of course, what he leaves out is that the DOJ believes that the federal government has the legal authority to kill Americans based on this metadata. So that kind of matters:
It’s a bit scary to watch Hayden’s awkward snarky smile after making this statement.
Separately, if you rewind the video to the 15 minute mark, David Cole does a great job laying out why metadata is so powerful, though even he didn’t go so far as to highlight “death by metadata.”
As stated above, we knew that the CIA kills based on metadata — but it’s still fairly amazing that Hayden was willing to admit this. Either way, the next time you hear anyone invoking the “it’s just metadata” or saying “but it’s not the actual content” perhaps point out to them this simple statement: the former head of the NSA and CIA, and one of the biggest defenders of the metadata collection program (some of which began under his watch) has admitted: “we kill people based on metadata.”