One of the more bizarre aspects of the last nine months of Snowden revelations is how top political officials in other nations have repeatedly demonstrated, or even explicitly claimed, wholesale ignorance about their nations’ cooperation with the National Security Agency, as well as their own spying activities. This has led to widespread speculation about the authenticity of these reactions: Were these top officials truly unaware, or were they pretending to be, in order to distance themselves from surveillance operations that became highly controversial once disclosed?
A new NSA document published today by The Intercept sheds considerable light on these questions. The classified document contains an internal NSA interview with an official from the SIGINT Operations Group in NSA’s Foreign Affairs Directorate. Titled “What Are We After with Our Third Party Relationships? — And What Do They Want from Us, Generally Speaking?”, the discussion explores the NSA’s cooperative relationship with its surveillance partners. Upon being asked whether political shifts within those nations affect the NSA’s relationships, the SIGINT official explains why such changes generally have no effect: because only a handful of military officials in those countries are aware of the spying activities. Few, if any, elected leaders have any knowledge of the surveillance.
The revelations of a global system of blanket surveillance have come as a great surprise to hundreds of millions of citizens around the world whose governments were operating these systems without their knowledge. But they also came as a surprise to many high-ranking political officials in countries around the world who were previously ignorant of those programs, a fact which the NSA seems to view as quite valuable in ensuring that its surveillance activities remain immune from election outcomes and democratic debate.