Newspaper: Snowden documents reveal surprising depth of NSA activities

Posted by Mark Seibel on November 3, 2013 

Britain Surveillance

A June 9, 2013 photo provided by The Guardian newspaper in London shows Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the U.S. National Security Agency, in Hong Kong.


— The New York Times published in its Sunday print edition a wide-ranging look at the contents of the leaked Snowden documents that I recommend you read. You can find the full story here.

WikiLeaks called the article a “spoiler” in a tweet this morning and accused the Times, with which it has a hate-hate relationship, of undercutting the work of its competitors by providing just a sentence or two on revelations that deserved far more exploration.

That is one way to look at the piece. I counted at least 15 items laid out in the article’s 5,000 words that deserved a separate headline, starting with the first two paragraphs where we learn that the NSA somehow pirated a list of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s talking points ahead of a friendly meeting with Barack Obama in April.

To give you a taste of the story’s range: The NSA’s Dishfire database “stores years of text messages from around the world, just in case.” The Tracfin program “accumulates gigabytes of credit card purchases.” SNACKS, which stands for Social Network Analysis Collaboration Knowledge Services, tries to figure out who reports to whom in an organization by analyzing texts. NSA gave information on the location of FARC guerrillas to the Colombian government. Its listening post in Texas helped thwart a plot against Swedish artist who had drawn pictures of the Prophet Mohammed. It tracked the visit to Kurdistan Province of Iran’s supreme leader so well that it recorded the advance team’s discussion of how to get an ambulance and a fire truck aboard other vehicles for the journey.

There’s more: NSA regularly sends people to an unnamed friendly country, in violation of a treaty, to visit the site from which eavesdropping of an unnamed location takes place. They are given cover identities, false business cards and warned to buy no souvenirs, lest it somehow leak out what’s going on. The whole enterprise is managed remotely from Fort Gordon, Ga. At Fort Gordon, which is located in Augusta, on the border with South Carolina, programmers have created a tool that emails an analyst whenever a target changes location, based on what cellphone tower his phone is in touch with.

It goes on: The agency has hacked into email accounts used by leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and reads the unsent emails found in the drafts folder. It has the IP addresses of 24 Hezbollah computers, easing locating messages sent from them in the Internet maze. An NSA analyst in Texas was assigned to monitor the email of 10 top Venezuelan economic officials. The NSA tracked the troubles of a Jamaican drug dealer named Ricketts with a dealer named Gordo, who claimed to have paid $250,000 for product he never received. There are 14 analysts assigned to track the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan terrorist group thought responsible for the 2008 attack in Mumbai. It’s man-to-man, not zone, coverage: Bryan listens to Haroon, Paul tracks Fazl.

You get the picture, and I see I have undercounted the individual stories that could have been detailed from this trove of documents.

But it seems to me “spoiling” all those other stories isn't the issue (and who says knowing the punch line early ruins one day knowing the whole joke?). The story, in the way newspaper articles often do, succeeds in indirectly raising, if not answering, what now ought to be the big question on the minds of members of Congress who are considering legislation to reform the way the NSA operates: What really is the value of all of this collection effort?

The story points out that for all the billions of dollars the NSA spends, it was unable to stop the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus and has been unable to ensure that Afghanistan won’t descend into utter chaos when the U.S. withdraws its combat forces. We may know what Karzai is going to tell the Iranians from eavesdropping on his aides, but that hasn’t made us any more successful at dealing with him. The successful capture of Ban Ki-moon’s talking points ahead of his meeting with Obama might not even have been shared with the president – who, one hopes, wouldn’t have needed them anyway to prepare himself for a meeting where the likely topics would have been obvious to anyone who reads a newspaper or listens to NPR (a TV-only news consumer might have needed the help).

A German legislator, Hans-Christian Stroebele, asked the other day, “What terrorists did the NSA hope to find on the chancellor’s cellphone?” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave a kind of answer last week when he testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Lecturing on the importance of divining “leadership intentions,” he used as an example knowing in advance what the Germans planned to do about keeping their troops in Afghanistan. That required eavesdropping on a telephone? The debate was broadly engaged in the German press, and, of course, Obama could have asked Merkel, back when their relationship was said to be quite cordial.

Now, however, that might be a rather cool conversation – a cost that obviously was not factored into the decision to tap her phone – and I use the word “tap” here intentionally because it seems increasingly likely that the actual content of her communications was recorded. Clearly, little thought was given to the potential repercussions as the NSA engaged in that effort – apparently for 10 years.

And while it seems incredible that Obama didn’t know of something so sensitive, it also is quite possible – this from no less an authority than retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA and the CIA. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday morning, Hayden wouldn’t say whether the president knew or not, but he implied that he wouldn’t be surprised if Obama hadn’t been informed – “This wasn’t exceptional,” he explained.

Which brings us back to the question of whether there’s a point in spending billions of dollars collecting information that in the end doesn’t actually prove terribly useful.

Officials are full of numbers that show that the vast stores of cellphone metadata, the collection of which is the real issue that has animated people in the United States, isn’t really that big a deal. One emerged at last week’s House intel hearing: the vast database has been queried fewer than 300 times. Really? So much trouble for so little. The number of terrorist plots officials claim to have been thwarted keeps dropping, too. When the NSA documents first emerged in June, it was 54. Last Tuesday, it was 13.

And there are members of Congress who think even that is an exaggeration and who fear that the NSA’s unceasing collection of phone records – to build a haystack where they can search for a needle, to use the NSA folks’ description – actually helps make those needles more difficult to find.

That’s the tack James Sensenbrenner took last week in an interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS's NewsHour. Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the author of the USA Patriot Act, under which the cellphone records are collected, pointedly noted that “the NSA has not ever come up with how many terrorist conspiracies that they have actually been able to solve in doing this. And, you know, I can say that two teenagers talking about who they're taking to the prom is not going to lead to somebody who wants to blow up Chicago.”

He got even more direct by bringing up the bombing of the Boston Marathon in response to a question Woodruff asked about the NSA officials’ assertion that they rarely look at the phone records.

“Well, so what?” Sensenbrenner said. “The fact that the calls took place and they get trillions of these calls makes the haystack so big that they can't find the needle in it. And even though Tsarnaev brothers were in the U.S. legally, one was a citizen, when the Russians told us they were bad guys, they weren't able to track down who they were . . . before the Boston Marathon bombing.”

Later, he revisited the point: “And I don't know how you can put the pieces of a trillion-piece puzzle together in time to stop a terrorist strike. They sure didn't do it with the Boston Marathon bombing, and they haven't been specific on any terrorist strike that they have stopped, except one, by using this metadata.”

Unfortunately, Sensenbrenner wasn’t among the guests on “Face the Nation” Sunday. It would have been interesting to see him face off with fellow Republican Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intel committee, who was.

Sensenbrenner, in his NewsHour interview, had shown he had little respect for the members of the House intel committee, who he said were little more than shills for the NSA. “What you heard from some of the people on the Intelligence Committee is that they're cheerleaders for the NSA, rather than doing oversight,” Sensenbrenner said shortly after the House hearing ended. “They ought to be doing oversight, which means asking the tough questions, getting to the bottom of the issues.”

Sensenbrenner didn’t mention Rogers by name. But Rogers made it clear he finds nothing wrong with what the NSA has done. Preventing terrorist attacks in the United States is the point of the massive NSA expansion since 9/11, he said Sunday. “We should use every means . . . that gets the job done,” he said. Of course, getting the job done may be the operative part of that sentence.

Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in her portion this morning’s Face the Nation, delineated the priorities that form the framework for the NSA’s work. They are combating terrorism, supporting the U.S. military overseas, nuclear counter proliferation, tracking hard targets, and cyber security. The question for Congress and the administration now is which of the NSA’s many programs actually contribute to these.

Which gets back to what ought to be the takeaway from this morning’s New York Times story: The NSA is able to do amazing things. But which of all those trillions spent have really made any difference?

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