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Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide” NSA Documents & Excerpts

In Archive, Chomsky, Greenwald, NSA, NSA Files, Snowden, Surveillance on July 31, 2014 at 4:59 AM

May 2014

NSA documents and excerpts from Glenn Greenwald‘s new book “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State.”


The archive of documents Edward Snowden had assembled was stunning in both size and scope. Even as someone who had spent years writing about the dangers of secret US surveillance, I found the sheer vastness of the spying system genuinely shocking, all the more so because it had clearly been implemented with virtually no accountability, no transparency, and no limits.

The thousands of discrete surveillance programs described by the archive were never intended by those who implemented them to become public knowledge. Many of the programs were aimed at the American population, but dozens of countries around the planet—including democracies typically considered US allies, such as France, Brazil, India, and Germany—were also targets of indiscriminate mass surveillance.

Snowden’s archive was elegantly organized, but its size and complexity made it extremely difficult to process. The tens of thousands of NSA documents in it had been produced by virtually every unit and subdivision within the sprawling agency, and it also contained some files from closely aligned foreign intelligence agencies. The documents were startlingly recent: mostly from 2011 and 2012, and many from 2013. Some even dated from March and April of that year, just months before we met Snowden in Hong Kong.

The vast majority of the files in the archive were designated “top secret.” Most of those were marked “FVEY,” meaning that they were approved for distribution only to the NSA’s four closest surveillance allies, the “Five Eyes” English-speaking alliance composed of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Others were meant for US eyes only, marked “NOFORN” for “no foreign distribution.” Certain documents, such as the FISA court order allowing collection of telephone records and Obama’s presidential directive to prepare offensive cyber-operations, were among the US government’s most closely held secrets.

Deciphering the archive and the NSA’s language involved a steep learning curve. The agency communicates with itself and its partners in an idiosyncratic language of its own, a lingo that is bureaucratic and stilted yet at times boastful and even snarky. Most of the documents were also quite technical, filled with forbidding acronyms and code names, and sometimes required that other documents be read first before they could be understood.

But Snowden had anticipated the problem, providing glossaries of acronyms and program names, as well as internal agency dictionaries for terms of art. Still, some documents were impenetrable on the first, second, or even third reading. Their significance emerged only after I had put together different parts of other papers and consulted with some of the world’s foremost experts on surveillance, cryptography, hacking, the history of the NSA, and the legal framework governing American spying.

Compounding the difficulty was the fact that the mountains of documents were often organized not by subject but by branch of the agency where they had originated, and dramatic revelations were mixed in with large amounts of banal or highly technical material. Although the Guardian devised a program to search through the files by keyword, which was of great help, that program was far from perfect. The process of digesting the archive was painstakingly slow, and many months after we first received the documents, some terms and programs still required further reporting before they could be safely and coherently disclosed.

Despite such problems, though, Snowden’s files indisputably laid bare a complex web of surveillance aimed at Americans (who are explicitly beyond the NSA’s mission) and non-Americans alike. The archive revealed the technical means used to intercept communications: the NSA’s tapping of Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems, and personal computers. It identified individuals targeted for extremely invasive forms of spying, a list that ranged from alleged terrorists and criminal suspects to the democratically elected leaders of the nation’s allies and even ordinary American citizens. And it shed light on the NSA’s overall strategies and goals.

Snowden had placed crucial, overarching documents at the front of the archive, flagging them as especially important. These files disclosed the agency’s extraordinary reach, as well as its deceit and even criminality. The BOUNDLESS INFORMANT program was one of the first such revelations, showing that the NSA counts all the telephone calls and emails collected every day from around the world with mathematical exactitude. Snowden had placed these files so prominently not only because they quantified the volume of calls and emails collected and stored by the NSA—literally billions each day—but also because they proved that NSA chief Keith Alexander and other officials had lied to Congress. Repeatedly, NSA officials had claimed that they were incapable of providing specific numbers—exactly the data that BOUNDLESS INFORMANT was constructed to assemble.

For the one-month period beginning March 8, 2013, for example, a BOUNDLESS INFORMANT slide showed that a single unit of the NSA, Global Access Operations, had collected data on more than 3 billion telephone calls and emails that had passed through the US telecommunications system. (“DNR,” or “Dialed Number Recognition,” refers to telephone calls; “DNI,” or “Digital Network Intelligence,” refers to Internet-based communications such as emails.) That exceeded the collection from the systems each of Russia, Mexico, and virtually all the countries in Europe, and was roughly equal to the collection of data from China.

Overall, in just thirty days the unit had collected data on more than 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls from around the world. Another BOUNDLESS INFORMANT document detailed the international data collected in a single thirty-day period from Germany (500 million), Brazil (2.3 billion), and India (13.5 billion). And yet other files showed collection of metadata in cooperation with the governments of France (70 million), Spain (60 million), Italy (47 million), the Netherlands (1.8 million), Norway (33 million), and Denmark (23 million).


Despite the NSA’s statutorily defined focus on “foreign intelligence,” the documents confirmed that the American public was an equally important target for the secret surveillance. Nothing made that clearer than the April 25, 2013, top secret order from the FISA court compelling Verizon to turn over to the NSA all information about its American customers’ telephone calls, the “telephony metadata.” Marked “NOFORN,” the language of the order was as clear as it was absolute:



This bulk telephone collection program was one of the most significant discoveries in an archive suffused with all types of covert surveillance programs—from the large-scale PRISM (involving collection of data directly from the servers of the world’s biggest Internet companies) and PROJECT BULLRUN, a joint effort between the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to defeat the most common forms of encryption used to safeguard online transactions, to smaller-scale enterprises with names that reflect the contemptuous and boastful spirit of supremacy behind them: EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE, which targets the Tor browser that is meant to enable anonymity in online browsing; MUSCULAR, a means to invade the private networks of Google and Yahoo!; and OLYMPIA, Canada’s program to surveil the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Some of the surveillance was ostensibly devoted to terrorism suspects. But great quantities of the programs manifestly had nothing to do with national security. The documents left no doubt that the NSA was equally involved in economic espionage, diplomatic spying, and suspicionless surveillance aimed at entire populations.

Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.

This self-imposed mandate requires endlessly expanding the NSA’s reach. Every day, the NSA works to identify electronic communications that are not being collected and stored and then develops new technologies and methods to rectify the deficiency. The agency regards itself as needing no specific justification to collect any particular electronic communication, nor any grounds for regarding its targets with suspicion. What the NSA calls “SIGINT”—all signals intelligence—is its target. And the mere fact that it has the capability to collect those communications has become one rationale for doing so.

* * *

A military branch of the Pentagon, the NSA is the largest intelligence agency in the world, with the majority of its surveillance work conducted through the Five Eyes alliance. Until the spring of 2014, when controversy over the Snowden stories became increasingly intense, the agency was headed by four-star general Keith B. Alexander, who had overseen it for the previous nine years, aggressively increasing the NSA’s size and influence during his tenure. In the process, Alexander became what reporter James Bamford described as “the most powerful intelligence chief in the nation’s history.”

The NSA “was already a data behemoth when Alexander took over,” Foreign Policy reporter Shane Harris noted, “but under his watch, the breadth, scale, and ambition of its mission have expanded beyond anything ever contemplated by his predecessors.” Never before had “one agency of the U.S. government had the capacity, as well as the legal authority, to collect and store so much electronic information.” A former administration official who worked with the NSA chief told Harris that “Alexander’s strategy” was clear: “I need to get all of the data.” And, Harris added, “He wants to hang on to it for as long as he can.”

Alexander’s personal motto, “Collect it all,” perfectly conveys the central purpose of the NSA. He first put this philosophy into practice in 2005 while collecting signals intelligence relating to the occupation of Iraq. As the Washington Post reported in 2013, Alexander grew dissatisfied with the limited focus of American military intelligence, which targeted only suspected insurgents and other threats to US forces, an approach that the newly appointed NSA chief viewed as too constraining. “He wanted everything: Every Iraqi text message, phone call, and e-mail that could be vacuumed up by the agency’s powerful computers.” So the government deployed technological methods indiscriminately to collect all communications data from the entire Iraqi population.

Alexander then conceived of applying this system of ubiquitous surveillance—originally created for a foreign population in an active war zone—to American citizens. “And, as he did in Iraq, Alexander has pushed hard for everything he can get,” the Post reported: “tools, resources, and the legal authority to collect and store vast quantities of raw information on American and foreign communications.” Thus, “in his eight years at the helm of the country’s electronic surveillance agency, Alexander, 61, has quietly presided over a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security.”

Alexander’s reputation as a surveillance extremist is well documented. In describing his “all-out, barely legal drive to build the ultimate spy machine,” Foreign Policy called him “the cowboy of the NSA.” Even Bush-era CIA and NSA chief General Michael Hayden—who himself oversaw the implementation of Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program and is notorious for his aggressive militarism—often had “heartburn” over Alexander’s no-holds-barred approach, according to Foreign Policy. A former intelligence official characterized Alexander’s view: “Let’s not worry about the law. Let’s just figure out how to get the job done.” The Post similarly noted that “even his defenders say Alexander’s aggressiveness has sometimes taken him to the outer edge of his legal authority.”

Although some of the more extreme statements from Alexander—such as his blunt question “Why can’t we collect all the signals, all the time?,” which he reportedly asked during a 2008 visit to Britain’s GCHQ—have been dismissed by agency spokespeople as mere lighthearted quips taken out of context, the agency’s own documents demonstrate that Alexander was not joking. A top secret presentation to the 2011 annual conference of the Five Eyes alliance, for instance, shows that the NSA has explicitly embraced Alexander’s motto of omniscience as its core purpose:


A 2010 document presented to the Five Eyes conference by the GCHQ—referring to its ongoing program to intercept satellite communications, code-named TARMAC—makes it clear that the British spy agency also uses this phrase to describe its mission:


Even routine internal NSA memoranda invoke the slogan to justify expanding the agency’s capabilities. One 2009 memo from the technical director of the NSA’s Mission Operations, for example, touts recent improvements to the agency’s collection site in Misawa, Japan:


Far from being a frivolous quip, “collect it all” defines the NSA’s aspiration, and it is a goal the NSA is increasingly closer to reaching. The quantity of telephone calls, emails, online chats, online activities, and telephonic metadata collected by the agency is staggering. Indeed, the NSA frequently, as one 2012 document put it, “collects far more content than is routinely useful to analysts.” As of mid-2012, the agency was processing more than twenty billion communications events (both Internet and telephone) from around the world each day:


For each individual country, the NSA also produces a daily breakdown quantifying the number of calls and emails collected. The chart below, for Poland, shows more than three million telephone calls on some days, for a thirty-day total of seventy-one million:


The domestic total collected by the NSA is equally stunning. Even prior to Snowden’s revelations, the Washington Post reported in 2010 that “every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other types of communications” from Americans. William Binney, a mathematician who worked for the NSA for three decades and resigned in the wake of 9/11 in protest over the agency’s increasing domestic focus, has likewise made numerous statements about the quantities of US data collected. In a 2012 interview with Democracy Now!, Binney said that “they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.”

After Snowden’s revelations, the Wall Street Journal reported that the overall interception system of the NSA “has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans.” Speaking anonymously, current and former NSA officials told the Journal that in some cases the NSA “retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology.”

Britain’s GCHQ similarly collects such a great quantity of communications data that it can barely store what it has. As one 2011 document prepared by the British put it:


So fixated is the NSA on collecting it all that the Snowden archive is sprinkled with celebratory internal memos heralding particular collection milestones. This December 2012 entry from an internal messaging board, for instance, proudly proclaims that the SHELLTRUMPET program has processed its one trillionth record:


* * *

To collect such vast quantities of communications, the NSA relies on a multitude of methods. These include tapping directly into fiber-optic lines (including underwater cables) used to transmit international communications; redirecting messages into NSA repositories when they traverse the US system, as most worldwide communications do; and cooperating with the intelligence services in other countries. With increasing frequency, the agency also relies on Internet companies and telecoms, which indispensably pass on information they have collected about their own customers.

While the NSA is officially a public agency, it has countless overlapping partnerships with private sector corporations, and many of its core functions have been outsourced. The NSA itself employs roughly thirty thousand people, but the agency also has contracts for some sixty thousand employees of private corporations, who often provide essential services. Snowden himself was actually employed not by the NSA but by the Dell Corporation and the large defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Still, he, like many other private contractors, worked in the NSA offices, on its core functions, with access to its secrets.

According to Tim Shorrock, who has long chronicled the NSA-corporate relationship, “70 percent of our national intelligence budget is being spent on the private sector.” When Michael Hayden said that “the largest concentration of cyber power on the planet is the intersection of the Baltimore Parkway and Maryland Route 32,” Shorrock noted, “he was referring not to the NSA itself but to the business park about a mile down the road from the giant black edifice that houses NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. There, all of NSA’s major contractors, from Booz to SAIC to Northrop Grumman, carry out their surveillance and intelligence work for the agency.”

These corporate partnerships extend beyond intelligence and defense contractors to include the world’s largest and most important Internet corporations and telecoms, precisely those companies that handle the bulk of the world’s communications and can facilitate access to private exchanges. After describing the agency’s missions of “Defense (Protect U.S. Telecommunications and Computer Systems Against Exploitation)” and “Offense (Intercept and Exploit Foreign Signals),” one top secret NSA document enumerates some of the services supplied by such corporations:


These corporate partnerships, which provide the systems and the access on which the NSA depends, are managed by the NSA’s highly secret Special Sources Operations unit, the division that oversees corporate partnerships. Snowden described the SSO as the “crown jewel” of the organization.

BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, and STORMBREW are some of the programs overseen by the SSO within its Corporate Partner Access (CPA) portfolio.


As part of these programs, the NSA exploits the access that certain telecom companies have to international systems, having entered into contracts with foreign telecoms to build, maintain, and upgrade their networks. The US companies then redirect the target country’s communications data to NSA repositories.

The core purpose of BLARNEY is depicted in one NSA briefing:


BLARNEY relied on one relationship in particular—a long-standing partnership with AT&T Inc., according to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the program. According to the NSA’s own files, in 2010 the list of countries targeted by BLARNEY included Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and Venezuela, as well as the European Union and the United Nations.

FAIRVIEW, another SSO program, also collects what the NSA touts as “massive amounts of data” from around the world. And it, too, relies mostly on a single “corporate partner” and, in particular, that partner’s access to the telecommunications systems of foreign nations. The NSA’s internal summary of FAIRVIEW is simple and clear:



According to NSA documents, FAIRVIEW “is typically in the top five at NSA as a collection source for serialized production”—meaning ongoing surveillance—“and one of the largest providers of metadata.” Its overwhelming reliance on one telecom is demonstrated by its claim that “approximately 75% of reporting is single source, reflecting the unique access the program enjoys to a wide variety of target communications.” Though the telecom is not identified, one description of the FAIRVIEW partner makes clear its eagerness to cooperate:


Thanks to such cooperation, the FAIRVIEW program collects vast quantities of information about telephone calls. One chart, which covers the thirty-day period beginning December 10, 2012, shows that just this program alone was responsible for the collection of some two hundred million records each day that month, for a thirty-day total of more than six billion records. The light bars are collections of “DNR” (telephone calls), while the dark bars are “DNI” (Internet activity):


To collect these billions of phone records, the SSO collaborates with the NSA’s corporate partners as well as with foreign government agencies—for instance, the Polish intelligence service:


The OAKSTAR program similarly exploits the access that one of the NSA’s corporate partners (code-named STEELKNIGHT) has to foreign telecommunications systems, using that access to redirect data into the NSA’s own repositories. Another partner, code-named SILVERZEPHYR, appears in a November 11, 2009, document describing work done with the company to obtain “internal communications” from both Brazil and Colombia:


Meanwhile, the STORMBREW program, conducted in “close partnership with the FBI,” gives the NSA access to Internet and telephone traffic that enters the United States at various “choke points” on US soil. It exploits the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Internet traffic at some point flows through the US communications infrastructure—a residual by-product of the central role that the United States had played in developing the network. Some of these designated choke points are identified by cover names:


According to the NSA, STORMBREW “is currently comprised of very sensitive relationships with two U.S. telecom providers (cover terms ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT).” Beyond its access to US-based choke points, “the STORMBREW program also manages two submarine cable landing access sites; one on the USA west coast (cover term, BRECKENRIDGE), and the other on the USA east coast (cover term QUAIL-CREEK).”

As the profusion of cover names attests, the identity of its corporate partners is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the NSA. The documents containing the key to those code names are vigilantly safeguarded by the agency and Snowden was unable to obtain many of them. Nonetheless, his revelations did unmask some of the companies cooperating with the NSA. Most famously, his archive included the PRISM documents, which detailed secret agreements between the NSA and the world’s largest Internet companies—Facebook, Yahoo!, Apple, Google—as well as extensive efforts by Microsoft to provide the agency with access to its communications platforms such as Outlook.

Unlike BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, and STORMBREW, which entail tapping into fiber-optic cables and other forms of infrastructure (“upstream” surveillance, in NSA parlance), PRISM allows the NSA to collect data directly from the servers of nine of the biggest Internet companies:


The companies listed on the PRISM slide denied allowing the NSA unlimited access to their servers. Facebook and Google, for instance, claimed that they only give the NSA information for which the agency has a warrant, and tried to depict PRISM as little more than a trivial technical detail: a slightly upgraded delivery system whereby the NSA receives data in a “lockbox” that the companies are legally compelled to provide.

But their argument is belied by numerous points. For one, we know that Yahoo! vigorously fought in court against the NSA’s efforts to force it to join PRISM—an unlikely effort if the program were simply a trivial change to a delivery system. (Yahoo!’s claims were rejected by the FISA court, and the company was ordered to participate in PRISM.) Second, the Washington Post’s Bart Gellman, after receiving heavy criticism for “overstating” the impact of PRISM, reinvestigated the program and confirmed that he stood by the Post’s central claim: “From their workstations anywhere in the world, government employees cleared for PRISM access may ‘task’ the system”—that is, run a search—“and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff.”

Third, the Internet companies’ denials were phrased in evasive and legalistic fashion, often obfuscating more than clarifying. For instance, Facebook claimed not to provide “direct access,” while Google denied having created a “back door” for the NSA. But as Chris Soghoian, the ACLU’s tech expert, told Foreign Policy, these were highly technical terms of art denoting very specific means to get at information. The companies ultimately did not deny that they had worked with the NSA to set up a system through which the agency could directly access their customers’ data.

Finally, the NSA itself has repeatedly hailed PRISM for its unique collection capabilities and noted that the program has been vital for increasing surveillance. One NSA slide details PRISM’s special surveillance powers:


Another details the wide range of communications that PRISM enables the NSA to access:


And another NSA slide details how the PRISM program has steadily and substantially increased the agency’s collection:


On its internal messaging boards, the Special Source Operation division frequently hails the massive collection value PRISM has provided. One message, from November 19, 2012, is entitled “PRISM Expands Impact: FY12 Metrics”:


Such congratulatory proclamations do not support the notion of PRISM as only a trivial technicality, and they give the lie to Silicon Valley’s denials of cooperation. Indeed, the New York Times, reporting on the PRISM program after Snowden’s revelations, described a slew of secret negotiations between the NSA and Silicon Valley about providing the agency with unfettered access to the companies’ systems. “When government officials came to Silicon Valley to demand easier ways for the world’s largest Internet companies to turn over user data as part of a secret surveillance program, the companies bristled,” reported the Times. “In the end, though, many cooperated at least a bit.” In particular:

Twitter declined to make it easier for the government. But other companies were more compliant, according to people briefed on the negotiations. They opened discussions with national security officials about developing technical methods to more efficiently and securely share the personal data of foreign users in response to lawful government requests. And in some cases, they changed their computer systems to do so.

These negotiations, the New York Times said, “illustrate how intricately the government and tech companies work together, and the depth of their behind-the-scenes transactions.” The article also contested the companies’ claims that they provide the NSA only with access that is legally compelled, noting: “While handing over data in response to a legitimate FISA request is a legal requirement, making it easier for the government to get the information is not, which is why Twitter could decline to do so.”

The Internet companies’ claim that they hand over to the NSA just the information that they are legally required to provide is also not particularly meaningful. That’s because the NSA only needs to obtain an individual warrant when it wants to specifically target a US person. No such special permission is required for the agency to obtain the communications data of any non-American on foreign soil, even when that person is communicating with Americans. Similarly, there is no check or limit on the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata, thanks to the government’s interpretation of the Patriot Act—an interpretation so broad that even the law’s original authors were shocked to learn how it was being used.

The close collaboration between the NSA and private corporations is perhaps best seen in the documents relating to Microsoft, which reveal the company’s vigorous efforts to give the NSA access to several of its most used online services, including SkyDrive, Skype, and

SkyDrive, which allows people to store their files online and access them from various devices, has more than 250 million users worldwide. “We believe it’s important that you have control over who can and cannot access your personal data in the cloud,” Microsoft’s SkyDrive website proclaims. Yet as an NSA document details, Microsoft spent “many months” working to provide the government with easier access to that data:


In late 2011, Microsoft purchased Skype, the Internet-based telephone and chat service with over 663 million registered users. At the time of its purchase, Microsoft assured users that “Skype is committed to respecting your privacy and the confidentiality of your personal data, traffic, and communications content.” But in fact, this data, too, was readily available to the government. By early 2013, there were multiple messages on the NSA system celebrating the agency’s steadily improving access to the communications of Skype users:



Not only was all this collaboration conducted with no transparency, but it contradicted public statements made by Skype. ACLU technology expert Chris Soghoian said the revelations would surprise many Skype customers. “In the past, Skype made affirmative promises to users about their inability to perform wiretaps,” he said. “It’s hard to square Microsoft’s secret collaboration with the NSA with its high-profile efforts to compete on privacy with Google.”

In 2012, Microsoft began upgrading its email portal,, to merge all of its communications services—including the widely used Hotmail—into one central program. The company touted the new Outlook by promising high levels of encryption to protect privacy, and the NSA quickly grew concerned that the encryption Microsoft offered to Outlook customers would block the agency from spying on their communications. One SSO memo from August 22, 2012, frets that “using this portal means that email emerging from it will be encrypted with the default setting” and that “chat sessions conducted within the portal are also encrypted when both communicants are using a Microsoft encrypted chat client.”

But that worry was short-lived. Within a few months, the two entities got together and devised methods for the NSA to circumvent the very encryption protections Microsoft was publicly advertising as vital for protecting privacy:


Not only was all this collaboration conducted with no transparency, but it contradicted public statements made by Skype. ACLU technology expert Chris Soghoian said the revelations would surprise many Skype customers. “In the past, Skype made affirmative promises to users about their inability to perform wiretaps,” he said. “It’s hard to square Microsoft’s secret collaboration with the NSA with its high-profile efforts to compete on privacy with Google.”

In 2012, Microsoft began upgrading its email portal,, to merge all of its communications services—including the widely used Hotmail—into one central program. The company touted the new Outlook by promising high levels of encryption to protect privacy, and the NSA quickly grew concerned that the encryption Microsoft offered to Outlook customers would block the agency from spying on their communications. One SSO memo from August 22, 2012, frets that “using this portal means that email emerging from it will be encrypted with the default setting” and that “chat sessions conducted within the portal are also encrypted when both communicants are using a Microsoft encrypted chat client.”

But that worry was short-lived. Within a few months, the two entities got together and devised methods for the NSA to circumvent the very encryption protections Microsoft was publicly advertising as vital for protecting privacy:


“Upstream” collection (from fiber-optic cables) and direct collection from the servers of Internet companies (PRISM) account for most of the records gathered by the NSA. In addition to such sweeping surveillance, though, the NSA also carries out what it calls Computer Network Exploitation (CNE), placing malware in individual computers to surveil their users. When the agency succeeds in inserting such malware, it is able, in NSA terminology, to “own” the computer: to view every keystroke entered and every screen viewed. The Tailored Access Operations (TAO) division responsible for this work is, in effect, the agency’s own private hacker unit.

The hacking practice is quite widespread in its own right: one NSA document indicates that the agency has succeeded in infecting at least fifty thousand individual computers with a type of malware called “Quantum Insertion.” One map shows the places where such operations have been performed and the number of successful insertions:


Using Snowden documents, the New York Times reported that the NSA has in fact implanted this particular software “in nearly 100,000 computers around the world.” Although the malware is usually installed by “gaining access to computer networks, the NSA has increasingly made use of a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet.”

* * *

Beyond its work with compliant telecoms and Internet companies, the NSA has also colluded with foreign governments to construct its far-reaching surveillance system. Broadly speaking, the NSA has three different categories of foreign relationships. The first is with the Five Eyes group: the US spies with these countries, but rarely on them, unless requested to by those countries’ own officials. The second tier involves countries that the NSA works with for specific surveillance projects while also spying on them extensively. The third group is comprised of countries on which the United States routinely spies but with whom it virtually never cooperates.

Within the Five Eyes group, the closest NSA ally is the British GCHQ. As the Guardian reported, based on documents provided by Snowden, “The U.S. government has paid at least £100m to the UK spy agency GCHQ over the last three years to secure access to and influence over Britain’s intelligence gathering programs.” Those payments were an incentive to GCHQ to support the NSA’s surveillance agenda. “GCHQ must pull its weight and be seen to pull its weight,” a secret GCHQ strategy briefing said.

The Five Eyes members share most of their surveillance activities and meet each year at a Signals Development conference, where they boast of their expansion and the prior year’s successes. Former NSA deputy director John Inglis has said of the Five Eyes alliance that they “practice intelligence in many regards in a combined way—essentially make sure that we leverage one another’s capabilities for mutual benefit.”

Many of the most invasive surveillance programs are carried out by the Five Eyes partners, a substantial number of these involving the GCHQ. Of special note are the British agency’s joint efforts with the NSA to break the common encryption techniques that are used to safeguard personal Internet transactions, such as online banking and retrieval of medical records. The two agencies’ success in setting up backdoor access to those encryption systems not only allowed them to peer at people’s private dealings, but also weakened the systems for everyone, making them more vulnerable to malicious hackers and to other foreign intelligence agencies.

The GCHQ has also conducted mass interception of communications data from the world’s underwater fiber-optic cables. Under the program name Tempora, the GCHQ developed the “ability to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analysed,” the Guardian reported, and the “GCHQ and the NSA are consequently able to access and process vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people.” The intercepted data encompass all forms of online activity, including “recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook, and the history of any internet user’s access to websites.”

The GCHQ’s surveillance activities are every bit as comprehensive—and unaccountable—as the NSA’s. As the Guardian noted:

The sheer scale of the agency’s ambition is reflected in the titles of its two principal components: Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible. This is all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate.

Canada is also a very active partner with the NSA and an energetic surveillance force in its own right. At the 2012 SigDev conference, the Communications Services Establishment Canada (CSEC) boasted about targeting the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, the agency in Brazil that regulates the industry of greatest interest to Canadian companies:



There is evidence of widespread CSEC/NSA cooperation, including Canada’s efforts to set up spying posts for communications surveillance around the world at the behest and for the benefit of the NSA, and spying on trading partners targeted by the US agency.


The Five Eyes relationship is so close that member governments place the NSA’s desires above the privacy of their own citizens. The Guardian reported on one 2007 memo, for instance, describing an agreement “that allowed the agency to ‘unmask’ and hold on to personal data about Britons that had previously been off limits.” Additionally, the rules were changed in 2007 “to allow the NSA to analyse and retain any British citizens’ mobile phone and fax numbers, emails and IP addresses swept up by its dragnet.”

Going a step further, in 2011 the Australian government explicitly pleaded with the NSA to “extend” their partnership and subject Australian citizens to greater surveillance. In a February 21 letter, the acting deputy director of Australia’s Intelligence Defence Signals Directorate wrote to the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, claiming that Australia “now face[s] a sinister and determined threat from ‘home grown’ extremists active both abroad and within Australia.” He requested increased surveillance on the communications of Australian citizens deemed suspicious by their government:


Beyond the Five Eyes partners, the NSA’s next level of cooperation is with its Tier B allies: countries that have some limited cooperation with the agency and are also targeted themselves for aggressive, unrequested surveillance. The NSA has clearly delineated these two levels of alliances:


Using different designations (referring to Tier B as Third Parties), a more recent NSA document—from the Fiscal Year 2013 “Foreign Partner Review”—shows an expanding list of NSA partners, including international organizations such as NATO:


As with the GCHQ, the NSA often maintains these partnerships by paying its partner to develop certain technologies and engage in surveillance, and can thus direct how the spying is carried out. The Fiscal Year 2012 “Foreign Partner Review” reveals numerous countries that have received such payments, including Canada, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Thailand:


In particular, the NSA has a surveillance relationship with Israel that often entails cooperation as close as the Five Eyes partnership, if not sometimes even closer. A Memorandum of Understanding between the NSA and the Israeli intelligence service details how the United States takes the unusual step of routinely sharing with Israel raw intelligence containing the communications of American citizens. Among the data furnished to Israel are “unevaluated and unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice, and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content.”

What makes this sharing particularly egregious is that the material is sent to Israel without having undergone the legally required process of “minimization.” The minimization procedures are supposed to ensure that when the NSA’s bulk surveillance sweeps up some communications data that even the agency’s very broad guidelines do not permit it to collect, such information is destroyed as soon as possible and not disseminated further. As the law is written, the minimization requirements already have plenty of loopholes, including exemptions for “significant foreign intelligence information” or any “evidence of a crime.” But when it comes to disseminating data to Israeli intelligence, the NSA has apparently dispensed with such legalities altogether.

The memo flatly states: “NSA routinely sends ISNU [the Israeli SIGINT National Unit] minimized and unminimized raw collection.”

Highlighting how a country can both cooperate on surveillance and be a target at the same time, an NSA document recounting the history of Israel’s cooperation noted “trust issues which revolve around previous ISR operations,” and identified Israel as one of the most aggressive surveillance services acting against the United States:


The same report observed that, despite the close relationship between American and Israeli intelligence agencies, the extensive information provided to Israel by the United States produced little in return. Israeli intelligence was only interested in collecting data that helped them. As the NSA complained, the partnership was geared “almost totally” to Israel’s needs.


Another rung lower, below the Five Eyes partners and second-tier countries such as Israel, the third tier is composed of countries who are often targets but never partners of US spying programs. Those predictably include governments viewed as adversaries, such as China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Syria. But the third tier also includes countries ranging from the generally friendly to neutral, such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Indonesia, Kenya, and South Africa.

* * *

When the NSA revelations first came out, the US government tried to defend its actions by saying that, unlike foreign nationals, American citizens are protected from warrantless NSA surveillance. On June 18, 2013, President Obama told Charlie Rose: “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls … by law and by rule, and unless they … go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been.” The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, similarly told CNN that the NSA “is not listening to Americans’ phone calls. If it did, it is illegal. It is breaking the law.”

This was a rather odd line of defense: in effect, it told the rest of the world that the NSA does assault the privacy of non-Americans. Privacy protections, apparently, are only for American citizens. This message prompted such international outrage that even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, not exactly known for his vehement defense of privacy, complained that the US government “blew it” in its response to the NSA scandal by jeopardizing the interests of international Internet companies: “The government said don’t worry, we’re not spying on any Americans. Wonderful, that’s really helpful for companies trying to work with people around the world. Thanks for going out there and being clear. I think that was really bad.”

Aside from being a strange strategy, the claim is also patently false. In fact, contrary to the repeated denials of President Obama and his top officials, the NSA continuously intercepts the communications of American citizens, without any individual “probable cause” warrants to justify such surveillance. That’s because the 2008 FISA law, as noted earlier, allows the NSA—without an individual warrant—to monitor the content of any American’s communications as long as those communications are exchanged with a targeted foreign national. The NSA labels this “incidental” collection, as though it’s some sort of minor accident that the agency has been spying on Americans. But the implication is deceitful. As Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU, explained:

The government often says that this surveillance of Americans’ communications is “incidental,” which makes it sound like the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails is inadvertent and, even from the government’s perspective, regrettable.

But when the Bush administration officials asked Congress for this new surveillance power, they said quite explicitly that Americans’ communications were the communications of most interest to them. See, for example, FISA for the 21st century, Hearing Before the S. Comm. On the Judiciary, 109th Cong. (2006) (statement of Michael Hayden), that certain communications “with one end in the United States” are the ones “that are most important to us.”

The principal purpose of the 2008 law was to make it possible for the government to collect Americans’ international communications—and to collect those communications without reference to whether any party to those communications was doing anything illegal. And a lot of the government’s advocacy is meant to obscure this fact, but it’s a crucial one: The government doesn’t need to “target” Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communications.

Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin concurred that the FISA law of 2008 effectively gave the president the authority to run a program “similar in effect to the warrantless surveillance program” that had been secretly implemented by George Bush. “These programs may inevitably include many phone calls involving Americans, who may have absolutely no connection to terrorism or to Al Qaeda.”

Further discrediting Obama’s assurances is the subservient posture of the FISA court, which grants almost every surveillance request that the NSA submits. Defenders of the NSA frequently tout the FISA court process as evidence that the agency is under effective oversight. However, the court was set up not as a genuine check on the government’s power but as a cosmetic measure, providing just the appearance of reform to placate public anger over surveillance abuses revealed in the 1970s.

The uselessness of this institution as a true check on surveillance abuses is obvious because the FISA court lacks virtually every attribute of what our society generally understands as the minimal elements of a justice system. It meets in complete secrecy; only one party—the government—is permitted to attend the hearings and make its case; and the court’s rulings are automatically designated “Top Secret.” Tellingly, for years the FISA court was housed in the Department of Justice, making clear its role as a part of the executive branch rather than as an independent judiciary exercising real oversight.

The results have been exactly what one would expect: the court almost never rejects specific NSA applications to target Americans with surveillance. From its inception, FISA has been the ultimate rubber stamp. In its first twenty-four years, from 1978 to 2002, the court rejected a total of zero government applications while approving many thousands. In the subsequent decade, through 2012, the court has rejected just eleven government applications. In total, it has approved more than twenty thousand requests.

One of the provisions of the 2008 FISA law requires the executive branch annually to disclose to Congress the number of eavesdropping applications the court receives and then approves, modifies, or rejects. The disclosure for 2012 showed that the court approved every single one of the 1,788 applications for electronic surveillance that it considered, while “modifying”—that is, narrowing the purview of the order—in just 40 cases, or less than 3 percent.


Much the same was true of 2011, when the NSA reported 1,676 applications; the FISA court, while modifying 30 of them, “did not deny any applications in whole, or in part.”

The court’s subservience to the NSA is demonstrated by other statistics as well. Here, for instance, is the FISA court’s reaction over the last six years to various requests made by the NSA under the Patriot Act to obtain the business records—telephone, financial or medical—of US persons:


Thus, even in those limited cases when approval from the FISA court is needed to target someone’s communications, the process is more of an empty pantomime than a meaningful check on the NSA.

Another layer of oversight for the NSA is ostensibly provided by the congressional intelligence committees, also created in the aftermath of the surveillance scandals of the 1970s, but they are even more supine than the FISA court. While they are supposed to conduct “vigilant legislative oversight” over the intelligence community, those committees are in fact currently headed by the most devoted NSA loyalists in Washington: Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the Senate and Republican Mike Rogers in the House. Rather than offer any sort of adversarial check on the NSA’s operations, the Feinstein and Rogers committees exist primarily to defend and justify anything the agency does.

As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it in a December 2013 article, instead of providing oversight, the Senate committee more often “treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols.” Observers of the committee’s hearings on NSA activities were shocked by how the senators approached the questioning of NSA officials who appeared before them. The “questions” typically contained nothing more than long monologues by the senators about their recollections of the 9/11 attack and how vital it was to prevent attacks in the future. The committee members waved away the opportunity to interrogate those officials and perform their oversight responsibilities, instead propagandizing in defense of the NSA. The scene perfectly captured the true function of the intelligence committees over the last decade.

Indeed, the chairs of the congressional committees have sometimes defended the NSA even more vigorously than the agency’s officials themselves have done. At one point, in August 2013, two members of Congress—Democrat Alan Grayson of Florida and Republican Morgan Griffith of Virginia—separately approached me to complain that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was blocking them and other members from accessing the most basic information about the NSA. They each gave me letters they had written to the staff of Chairman Rogers requesting information about NSA programs being discussed in the media. Those requests were rebuffed again and again.

In the wake of our Snowden stories, a group of senators from both parties who had long been concerned with surveillance abuses began efforts to draft legislation that would impose real limits on the NSA’s powers. But these reformers, led by Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, ran into an immediate roadblock: counterefforts by the NSA’s defenders in the Senate to write legislation that would provide only the appearance of reform, while in fact retaining or even increasing the NSA’s powers. As Slate’s Dave Weigel reported in November:

Critics of the NSA’s bulk data collection and surveillance programs have never been worried about congressional inaction. They’ve expected Congress to come up with something that looked like reform but actually codified and excused the practices being exposed and pilloried. That’s what’s always happened—every amendment or reauthorization to the 2001 USA Patriot Act has built more back doors than walls.

“We will be up against a ‘business-as-usual brigade’—made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in thinktanks [sic] and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators,” warned Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden last month. “Their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep.… Privacy protections that don’t actually protect privacy are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

The “fake reform” faction was led by Dianne Feinstein, the very senator who is charged with exercising primary oversight over the NSA. Feinstein has long been a devoted loyalist of the US national security industry, from her vehement support for the war on Iraq to her steadfast backing of Bush-era NSA programs. (Her husband, meanwhile, has major stakes in various military contracts.) Clearly, Feinstein was a natural choice to head a committee that claims to carry out oversight over the intelligence community but has for years performed the opposite function.

Thus, for all the government’s denials, the NSA has no substantial constraints on whom it can spy on and how. Even when such constraints nominally exist—when American citizens are the surveillance target—the process has become largely hollow. The NSA is the definitive rogue agency: empowered to do whatever it wants with very little control, transparency, or accountability.

* * *

Very broadly speaking, the NSA collects two types of information: content and metadata. “Content” here refers to actually listening to people’s phone calls or reading their emails and online chats, as well as reviewing Internet activity such as browsing histories and search activities. “Metadata” collection, meanwhile, involves amassing data about those communications. The NSA refers to that as “information about content (but not the content itself).”

Metadata about an email message, for instance, records who emailed whom, when the email was sent, and the location of the person sending it. When it comes to telephone calls, the information includes the phone numbers of the caller and the receiver, how long they spoke for, and often their locations and the types of devices they used to communicate. In one document about telephone calls, the NSA outlined the metadata it accesses and stores:


The US government has insisted that much of the surveillance revealed in the Snowden archive involves the collection of “metadata, not content,” trying to imply that this kind of spying is not intrusive—or at least not to the same degree as intercepting content. Dianne Feinstein has explicitly argued in USA Today that the metadata collection of all Americans’ telephone records “is not surveillance” at all because it “does not collect the content of any communication.”

These disingenuous arguments obscure the fact that metadata surveillance can be at least as intrusive as content interception, and often even more so. When the government knows everyone you call and everyone who calls you, plus the exact length of all those phone conversations; when it can list every single one of your email correspondents and every location from where your emails were sent, it can create a remarkably comprehensive picture of your life, your associations, and your activities, including some of your most intimate and private information.

In an affidavit filed by the ACLU challenging the legality of the NSA’s metadata collection program, Princeton computer science and public affairs professor Edward Felten explained why metadata surveillance can be especially revealing:

Consider the following hypothetical example: A young woman calls her gynecologist; then immediately calls her mother; then a man who, during the past few months, she had repeatedly spoken to on the telephone after 11pm; followed by a call to a family planning center that also offers abortions. A likely storyline emerges that would not be as evident by examining the record of a single telephone call.

Even for a single phone call, the metadata can be more informative than the call’s content. Listening in on a woman calling an abortion clinic might reveal nothing more than someone confirming an appointment with a generic-sounding establishment (“East Side Clinic” or “Dr. Jones’s office”). But the metadata would show far more than that: it would reveal the identity of those who were called. The same is true of calls to a dating service, a gay and lesbian center, a drug addiction clinic, an HIV specialist, or a suicide hotline. Metadata would likewise unmask a conversation between a human rights activist and an informant in a repressive regime, or a confidential source calling a journalist to reveal high-level wrongdoing. And if you frequently call someone late at night who is not your spouse, the metadata will reveal that, too. What’s more, it will record not only all the people with whom you communicate and how often, but also all the people with whom your friends and associates communicate, creating a comprehensive picture of your network of contacts.

Indeed, as Professor Felten notes, eavesdropping on calls can be quite difficult due to language differences, meandering conversations, the use of slang or deliberate codes, and other attributes that either by design or accident obfuscate the meaning. “The content of calls are far more difficult to analyze in an automated fashion due to their unstructured nature,” he argued. By contrast, metadata is mathematical: clean, precise, and thus easily analyzed. And as Felten put it, it is often “a proxy for content”:

Telephony metadata can … expose an extraordinary amount about our habits and our associations. Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the Sabbath, or makes a large number of calls on Christmas day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have; and even our civil and political affiliations.

In sum, writes Felten, “mass collection not only allows the government to learn information about more people, but it also enables the government to learn new, previously private facts that it could not have learned simply by collecting the information about a few, specific individuals.”

Concern about the many uses that the government could find for this kind of sensitive information is especially justified because, contrary to repeated claims from President Obama and the NSA, it is already clear that a substantial number of the agency’s activities have nothing to do with antiterrorism efforts or even with national security. Much of the Snowden archive revealed what can only be called economic espionage: eavesdropping and email interception aimed at the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, economic conferences in Latin America, energy companies in Venezuela and Mexico, and spying by the NSA’s allies—including Canada, Norway, and Sweden—on the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy and energy companies in several other countries.

One remarkable document presented by the NSA and the GCHQ detailed numerous surveillance targets that were plainly economic in nature: Petrobras, the SWIFT banking system, the Russian oil company Gazprom, and the Russian airline Aeroflot.


For years, President Obama and his top officials vehemently denounced China for using its surveillance capabilities for economic advantage while insisting that the United States and its allies never do any such thing. The Washington Post quoted an NSA spokesperson saying that the Department of Defense, of which the agency is a part, “‘does engage’ in computer network exploitation,” but “does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including ‘cyber’” [emphatic asterisks in the original].

That the NSA spies for precisely the economic motive it has denied is proven by its own documents. The agency acts for the benefit of what it calls its “customers,” a list that includes not only the White House, the State Department, and the CIA, but also primarily economic agencies, such as the US Trade Representative and the Departments of Agriculture, Treasury, and Commerce:


In its description of the BLARNEY program, the NSA lists the types of information it is supposed to provide to its customers as “counter terrorism,” “diplomatic”—and “economic”:



Further evidence of the NSA’s economic interest appears in a PRISM document showing a “sampling” of the “Reporting Topics” for the week of February 2–8, 2013. A list of the types of information gathered from various countries clearly includes economic and financial categories, among them “energy,” “trade,” and “oil”:


One 2006 memorandum from the global capabilities manager of the agency’s International Security Issues (ISI) mission spells out the NSA’s economic and trade espionage—against countries as diverse as Belgium, Japan, Brazil, and Germany—in stark terms:


Reporting on a group of GCHQ documents leaked by Snowden, the New York Times noted that its surveillance targets often included financial institutions and “heads of international aid organizations, foreign energy companies and a European Union official involved in antitrust battles with American technology businesses.” It added that the US and British agencies “monitored the communications of senior European Union officials, foreign leaders including African heads of state and sometimes their family members, directors of United Nations and other relief programs [such as UNICEF], and officials overseeing oil and finance ministries.”

The reasons for economic espionage are clear enough. When the United States uses the NSA to eavesdrop on the planning strategies of other countries during trade and economic talks, it can gain enormous advantage for American industry. In 2009, for example, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon wrote a letter to Keith Alexander, offering his “gratitude and congratulations for the outstanding signals intelligence support” that the State Department received regarding the Fifth Summit of the Americas, a conference devoted to negotiating economic accords. In the letter, Shannon specifically noted that the NSA’s surveillance provided the United States with negotiating advantages over the other parties:


The NSA is equally devoted to diplomatic espionage, as the documents referring to “political affairs” demonstrate. One particularly egregious example, from 2011, shows how the agency targeted two Latin American leaders—Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, along with “her key advisers”; and Enrique Peña Nieto, then Mexico’s leading presidential candidate (and now its president), along with “nine of his close associates”—for a “surge” of especially invasive surveillance. The document even features some of the intercepted text messages sent and received by Nieto and a “close associate”:





One can speculate about why political leaders of Brazil and Mexico were NSA targets. Both countries are rich in oil resources. They are a big and influential presence in the region. And while they are far from adversaries, they are also not America’s closest and most trusted allies. Indeed, one NSA planning document—entitled “Identifying Challenges: Geopolitical Trends for 2014–2019”—list both Mexico and Brazil under the heading “Friends, Enemies, or Problems?” Others on that list are Egypt, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen.

But ultimately, in this case as in most others, speculation about any specific target is based on a false premise. The NSA does not need any specific reason or rationale to invade people’s private communications. Their institutional mission is to collect everything.

If anything, the revelations about NSA spying on foreign leaders are less significant than the agency’s warrantless mass surveillance of whole populations. Countries have spied on heads of state for centuries, including allies. This is unremarkable, despite the great outcry that ensued when, for example, the world discovered that the NSA had for many years targeted the personal cell phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel.

More remarkable is the fact that in country after country, revelations that the NSA was spying on hundreds of millions of their citizens produced little more than muted objections from their political leadership. True indignation came gushing forward only once those leaders understood that they, and not just their citizens, had been targeted as well.

Still, the sheer scale of diplomatic surveillance the NSA has practiced is unusual and noteworthy. In addition to foreign leaders, the United States has also, for example, spied extensively on international organizations such as the United Nations to gain diplomatic advantage. One April 2013 briefing from SSO is typical, noting how the agency used its programs to obtain the UN secretary general’s talking points prior to his meeting with President Obama:


Numerous other documents detail how Susan Rice, then ambassador to the UN and now President Obama’s national security adviser, repeatedly requested that the NSA spy on the internal discussions of key member states to learn their negotiation strategies. A May 2010 SSO report describes this process in connection with a resolution being debated by the UN that involved imposing new sanctions on Iran.


A similar surveillance document from August 2010 reveals that the United States spied on eight members of the UN Security Council regarding a subsequent resolution about sanctions on Iran. The list included France, Brazil, Japan, and Mexico—all considered friendly nations. The espionage gave the US government valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council.


To facilitate diplomatic spying, the NSA has gained various forms of access to the embassies and consulates of many of its closest allies. One 2010 document—shown here with some countries deleted—lists the nations whose diplomatic structures inside the United States were invaded by the agency. A glossary at the end explains the various types of surveillance used.




Some of the NSA’s methods serve all agendas—economic, diplomatic, security, and obtaining an all-purpose global advantage—and these are among the most invasive, and hypocritical, in the agency’s repertoire. For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices pose a “threat” because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.

The drumbeat of American accusations against Chinese Internet device manufacturers was unrelenting. In 2012, for example, a report from the House Intelligence Committee, headed by Mike Rogers, claimed that Huawei and ZTE, the top two Chinese telecommunications equipment companies, “may be violating United States laws” and have “not followed United States legal obligations or international standards of business behavior.” The committee recommended that “the United States should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.”

The Rogers committee voiced fears that the two companies were enabling Chinese state surveillance, although it acknowledged that it had obtained no actual evidence that the firms had implanted their routers and other systems with surveillance devices. Nonetheless, it cited the failure of those companies to cooperate and urged US firms to avoid purchasing their products:

Private-sector entities in the United States are strongly encouraged to consider the long-term security risks associated with doing business with either ZTE or Huawei for equipment or services. U.S. network providers and systems developers are strongly encouraged to seek other vendors for their projects. Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems.

The constant accusations became such a burden that Ren Zhengfei, the sixty-nine-year-old founder and CEO of Huawei, announced in November 2013 that the company was abandoning the US market. As Foreign Policy reported, Zhengfei told a French newspaper: “‘If Huawei gets in the middle of U.S-China relations,’ and causes problems, ‘it’s not worth it.’”

But while American companies were being warned away from supposedly untrustworthy Chinese routers, foreign organizations would have been well advised to beware of American-made ones. A June 2010 report from the head of the NSA’s Access and Target Development department is shockingly explicit. The NSA routinely receives—or intercepts—routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers. The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal, and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. The document gleefully observes that some “SIGINT tradecraft … is very hands-on (literally!)”:



Eventually, the implanted device connects back to the NSA infrastructure:


Among other devices, the agency intercepts and tampers with routers and servers manufactured by Cisco to direct large amounts of Internet traffic back to the NSA’s repositories. (There is no evidence in the documents that Cisco is aware of, or condoned, these interceptions.) In April 2013, the agency grappled with technical difficulties involving the intercepted Cisco network switches, which affected the BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, and STORMBREW programs:


It is quite possible that Chinese firms are implanting surveillance mechanisms in their network devices. But the United States is certainly doing the same.

Warning the world about Chinese surveillance could have been one of the motives behind the US government’s claims that Chinese devices cannot be trusted. But an equally important motive seems to have been preventing Chinese devices from supplanting American-made ones, which would have limited the NSA’s own reach. In other words, Chinese routers and servers represent not only economic competition but also surveillance competition: when someone buys a Chinese device instead of an American one, the NSA loses a crucial means of spying on a great many communication activities.

* * *

If the quantity of collection revealed was already stupefying, the NSA’s mission to collect all the signals all the time has driven the agency to expand and conquer more and more ground. The amount of data it captures is so vast, in fact, that the principal challenge the agency complains about is storing the heaps of information accumulated from around the globe. One NSA document, prepared for the Five Eyes SigDev Conference, set forth this central problem:


The story goes back to 2006, when the agency embarked on what it called “Large Scale Expansion of NSA Metadata Sharing.” At that point, the NSA predicted that its metadata collection would grow by six hundred billion records every year, growth that would include one to two billion new telephone call events collected every single day:


By May 2007, the expansion had evidently borne fruit: the amount of telephone metadata the agency was storing—independent of email and other Internet data, and excluding data the NSA had deleted due to lack of storage space—had increased to 150 billion records:


Once Internet-based communications were added to the mix, the total number of communication events stored was close to 1 trillion (this data, it should be noted, was then shared by the NSA with other agencies).

To address its storage problem, the NSA began building a massive new facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that has as one of its primary purposes the retention of all that data. As reporter James Bamford noted in 2012, the Bluffdale construction will expand the agency’s capacity by adding “four 25,000-square-foot halls filled with servers, complete with raised floor space for cables and storage. In addition, there will be more than 900,000 square feet for technical support and administration.” Considering the size of the building and the fact that, as Bamford says, “a terabyte of data can now be stored on a flash drive the size of a man’s pinky,” the implications for data collection are profound.

The need for ever-larger facilities is particularly pressing given the agency’s current invasions into global online activity, which extend far beyond the collection of metadata to include the actual content of emails, Web browsing, search histories, and chats. The key program used by the NSA to collect, curate, and search such data, introduced in 2007, is X-KEYSCORE, and it affords a radical leap in the scope of the agency’s surveillance powers. The NSA calls X-KEYSCORE its “widest-reaching” system for collecting electronic data, and with good reason.

A training document prepared for analysts claims the program captures “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,” including the text of emails, Google searches, and the names of websites visited. X-KEYSCORE even allows “real-time” monitoring of a person’s online activities, enabling the NSA to observe emails and browsing activities as they happen.

Beyond collecting comprehensive data about the online activities of hundreds of millions of people, X-KEYSCORE allows any NSA analyst to search the system’s databases by email address, telephone number, or identifying attributes such as an IP address. The range of information available and the basic means an analyst uses to search it are illustrated in this slide:


Another X-KEYSCORE slide lists the various fields of information that can be searched via the program’s “plug-ins.” Those include “every email address seen in a session,” “every phone number seen in a session” (including “address book entries”), and “the webmail and chat activity”:


The program also offers the ability to search and retrieve embedded documents and images that were created, sent, or received:


Other NSA slides openly declare the all-encompassing global ambition of X-KEYSCORE:



The searches enabled by the program are so specific that any NSA analyst is able not only to find out which websites a person has visited but also to assemble a comprehensive list of all visits to a particular website from specified computers:



Most remarkable is the ease with which analysts can search for whatever they want with no oversight. An analyst with access to X-KEYSCORE need not submit a request to a supervisor or any other authority. Instead, the analyst simply fills out a basic form to “justify” the surveillance, and the system returns the information requested.


In the first video interview he gave when in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden made an audacious claim: “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” US officials vehemently denied that this was true. Mike Rogers expressly accused Snowden of “lying,” adding, “It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.” But X-KEYSCORE permits an analyst to do exactly what Snowden said: target any user for comprehensive monitoring, which includes reading the content of their emails. Indeed, the program lets an analyst search for all emails that include targeted users in the “cc” line or mention of them in the body of the text.

The NSA’s own instructions for searching through emails demonstrate just how simple and easy it is for analysts to monitor anyone whose address they know:


One of X-KEYSCORE’s most valuable functions to the NSA is its ability to surveil the activities on online social networks (OSNs), such as Facebook and Twitter, which the agency believes provide a wealth of information and “insight into the personal lives of targets:”


The methods for searching social media activity are every bit as simple as the email search. An analyst enters the desired user name on, say, Facebook, along with the date range of activity, and X-KEYSCORE then returns all of that user’s information, including messages, chats, and other private postings.


Perhaps the most remarkable fact about X-KEYSCORE is the sheer quantity of data that it captures and stores at multiple collection sites around the world. “At some sites,” one report states, “the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours based on available resources.” For one thirty-day period beginning in December 2012, the quantity of records collected by X-KEYSCORE just for one unit, the SSO, exceeded forty-one billion:


X-KEYSCORE “stores the full-take content for 3–5 days, effectively ‘slowing down the internet,’”—meaning that “analysts can go back and recover sessions.” Then “content that is ‘interesting’ can be pulled out of X-KEYSCORE and pushed to Agility or PINWALE,” storage databases that provide longer retention.


X-KEYSCORE’s ability to access Facebook and other social media sites is boosted by other programs, which include BLARNEY, allowing the NSA to monitor a “broad range of Facebook data via surveillance and search activities”:


In the UK, meanwhile, the GCHQ’s Global Telecommunications Exploitation (GTE) division has also devoted substantial resources to the task, detailed in a 2011 presentation to the annual Five Eyes conference.



The GCHQ has paid special attention to weaknesses in Facebook’s security system and to obtaining the kind of data that Facebook users attempt to shield:


In particular, the GCHQ has found vulnerabilities in the network’s system for storing pictures, which can be used to gain access to Facebook IDs and album images:




Beyond social media networks, the NSA and the GCHQ continue to look for any gaps in their surveillance net, any communications that remain outside their grasp, and then develop ways to bring them under the agencies’ watchful eye. One seemingly obscure program demonstrates this point.

Both the NSA and GCHQ have been consumed by their perceived need to monitor Internet and phone communications of people on commercial airline flights. Because these are rerouted via independent satellite systems, they are extremely difficult to pinpoint. The idea that there is a moment when someone can use the Internet or their phone without detection—even for just a few hours while flying—is intolerable to the surveillance agencies. In response, they have devoted substantial resources to developing systems that will intercept in-flight communications.

At the 2012 Five Eyes conference, the GCHQ presented an interception program named Thieving Magpie, targeting the increasingly available use of cell phones during flights:



The proposed solution envisioned a system to ensure complete “global coverage”:


Substantial headway has been made to ensure that certain devices are susceptible to surveillance on passenger jets:



A related NSA document presented at the same conference, for a program entitled Homing Pigeon, also describes efforts to monitor in-air communications. The agency’s program was to be coordinated with the GCHQ, and the entire system made available to the Five Eyes group.



* * *

There is remarkable candidness, within parts of the NSA, about the true purpose of building so massive a secret surveillance system. A PowerPoint presentation prepared for a group of agency officials discussing the prospect of international Internet standards gives the unvarnished view. The author of the presentation is an “NSA/SIGINT National Intelligence Officer (SINIO) for Science and Technology,” a self-described “well trained scientist and hacker.”

The blunt title of his presentation: “The Role of National Interests, Money, and Egos.” These three factors together, he says, are the primary motives driving the United States to maintain global surveillance domination.


He notes that US dominance over the Internet has given the country substantial power and influence, and has also generated vast profit:


Such profit and power have also inevitably accrued, of course, to the surveillance industry itself, providing another motive for its endless expansion. The post-9/11 era has seen a massive explosion of resources dedicated to surveillance. Most of those resources were transferred from the public coffers (i.e., the American taxpayer) into the pockets of private surveillance defense corporations.

Companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and AT&T employ hordes of former top government officials, while hordes of current top defense officials are past (and likely future) employees of those same corporations. Constantly growing the surveillance state is a way to ensure that the government funds keep flowing, that the revolving door stays greased. That is also the best way to ensure that the NSA and its related agencies retain institutional importance and influence inside Washington.

As the scale and ambition of the surveillance industry has grown, so has the profile of its perceived adversary. Listing the various threats supposedly facing the United States, the NSA—in a document entitled “National Security Agency: Overview Briefing”—includes some predictable items: “hackers,” “criminal elements,” and “terrorists.” Revealingly, though, it also goes far broader by including among the threats a list of technologies, including the Internet itself:


The Internet has long been heralded as an unprecedented instrument of democratization and liberalization, even emancipation. But in the eyes of the US government, this global network and other types of communications technology threaten to undermine American power. Viewed from this perspective, the NSA’s ambition to “collect it all” at last becomes coherent. It is vital that the NSA monitor all parts of the Internet and any other means of communication, so that none can escape US government control.

Ultimately, beyond diplomatic manipulation and economic gain, a system of ubiquitous spying allows the United States to maintain its grip on the world. When the United States is able to know everything that everyone is doing, saying, thinking, and planning—its own citizens, foreign populations, international corporations, other government leaders—its power over those factions is maximized. That’s doubly true if the government operates at ever greater levels of secrecy. The secrecy creates a one-way mirror: the US government sees what everyone else in the world does, including its own population, while no one sees its own actions. It is the ultimate imbalance, permitting the most dangerous of all human conditions: the exercise of limitless power with no transparency or accountability.

Edward Snowden’s revelations subverted that dangerous dynamic by shining a light on the system and how it functions. For the first time, people everywhere were able to learn the true extent of the surveillance capabilities amassed against them. The news triggered an intense, sustained worldwide debate precisely because the surveillance poses such a grave threat to democratic governance. It also triggered proposals for reform, a global discussion of the importance of Internet freedom and privacy in the electronic age, and a reckoning with the vital question: What does limitless surveillance mean for us as individuals, in our own lives?


* * *

The opportunity those in power have to characterize political opponents as “national security threats” or even “terrorists” has repeatedly proven irresistible. In the last decade, the government, in an echo of Hoover’s FBI, has formally so designated environmental activists, broad swaths of antigovernment right-wing groups, antiwar activists, and associations organized around Palestinian rights. Some individuals within those broad categories may deserve the designation, but undoubtedly most do not, guilty only of holding opposing political views. Yet such groups are routinely targeted for surveillance by the NSA and its partners.

Indeed, after British authorities detained my partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow airport under an antiterrorism statute, the UK government expressly equated my surveillance reporting with terrorism on the ground that the release of the Snowden documents “is designed to influence a government and is made for the purposes of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism.” This is the clearest possible statement of linking a threat to the interests of power to terrorism.

None of this would come as any surprise to the American Muslim community, where the fear of surveillance on the grounds of terrorism is intense and pervasive, and for good reason. In 2012, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press exposed a joint CIA/New York Police Department scheme of subjecting entire Muslim communities in the United States to physical and electronic surveillance without the slightest whiff of any suggestion of wrongdoing. American Muslims routinely describe the effect of spying on their lives: each new person who shows up at a mosque is regarded with suspicion as an FBI informant; friends and family stifle their conversations for fear of being monitored and out of awareness that any expressed view deemed hostile to America can be used as a pretext for investigation or even prosecution.

One document from the Snowden files, dated October 3, 2012, chillingly underscores the point. It revealed that the agency has been monitoring the online activities of individuals it believes express “radical” ideas and who have a “radicalizing” influence on others. The memo discusses six individuals in particular, all Muslims, though it stresses that they are merely “exemplars.”

The NSA explicitly states that none of the targeted individuals is a member of a terrorist organization or involved in any terror plots. Instead, their crime is the views they express, which are deemed “radical,” a term that warrants pervasive surveillance and destructive campaigns to “exploit vulnerabilities.”

Among the information collected about the individuals, at least one of whom is a “U.S. person,” are details of their online sex activities and “online promiscuity”—the porn sites they visit and surreptitious sex chats with women who are not their wives. The agency discusses ways to exploit this information to destroy their reputations and credibility.


As the ACLU’s deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, observed, the NSA databases “store information about your political views, your medical history, your intimate relationships and your activities online.” The agency claims this personal information won’t be abused, “but these documents show that the NSA probably defines ‘abuse’ very narrowly.” As Jaffer pointed out, the NSA has historically, at a president’s request, “used the fruits of surveillance to discredit a political opponent, journalist, or human rights activist.” It would be “naive,” he said, to think the agency couldn’t still “use its power that way.”

Other documents describe the government’s focus not only on WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, but also on what the agency calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” In August 2010 the Obama administration urged several allies to file criminal charges against Assange for the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs. The discussion around pressuring other nations to prosecute Assange appears in an NSA file that the agency calls its “Manhunting Timeline.” It details, on a country-by-country basis, the efforts by the United States and its allies to locate, prosecute, capture, and/or kill various individuals, among them alleged terrorists, drug traffickers, and Palestinian leaders. A timeline exists for each year between 2008 and 2012.


A separate document contains a summary of a July 2011 exchange regarding whether WikiLeaks, as well as the file-sharing website Pirate Bay, could be designated as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purposes of targeting.” The designation would allow extensive electronic surveillance of those websites, including US users. The discussion appears in a running list of “Q&As” in which officials from the NTOC Oversight and Compliance office (NOC) and NSA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) provide answers to submitted questions.


One such exchange, from 2011, showed the NSA’s indifference to breaking the surveillance rules. In the document, an operator says, “I screwed up,” having targeted a US person instead of a foreigner. The response from the NSA’s oversight office and general counsel is, “it’s nothing to worry about.”


The treatment of Anonymous, as well as the vague category of people known as “hacktivists,” is especially troubling and extreme. That’s because Anonymous is not actually a structured group but a loosely organized affiliation of people around an idea: someone becomes affiliated with Anonymous by virtue of the positions they hold. Worse still, the category “hacktivists” has no fixed meaning: it can mean the use of programming skills to undermine the security and functioning of the Internet but can also refer to anyone who uses online tools to promote political ideals. That the NSA targets such broad categories of people is tantamount to allowing it to spy on anyone anywhere, including in the United States, whose ideas the government finds threatening.

Gabriella Coleman, a specialist on Anonymous at McGill University, said that the group “is not a defined” entity but rather “an idea that mobilizes activists to take collective action and voice political discontent. It is a broad-based global social movement with no centralized or official organized leadership structure. Some have rallied around the name to engage in digital civil disobedience, but nothing remotely resembling terrorism.” The majority who have embraced the idea have done so “primarily for ordinary political expression. Targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent,” Coleman explained.

Yet Anonymous has been targeted by a unit of the GCHQ that employs some of the most controversial and radical tactics known to spycraft: “false flag operations,” “honey-traps,” viruses and other attacks, strategies of deception, and “info ops to damage reputations.”

One PowerPoint slide presented by GCHQ surveillance officials at the 2012 SigDev conference describes two forms of attack: “information ops (influence or disruption)” and “technical disruption.” GCHQ refers to these measures as “Online Covert Action,” which is intended to achieve what the document calls “The 4 D’s: Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive.”


Another slide describes the tactics used to “discredit a target.” These include “set up a honey-trap,” “change their photos on social networking sites,” “write a blog purporting to be one of their victims,” and “email/text their colleagues, neighbors, friends, etc.”


In accompanying notes, the GCHQ explains that the “honey trap”—an old Cold War tactic involving using attractive women to lure male targets into compromising, discrediting situations—has been updated for the digital age: now a target is lured to a compromising site or online encounter. The comment added: “a great option. Very successful when it works.” Similarly, traditional methods of group infiltration are now accomplished online:


Another technique involves stopping “someone from communicating.” To do that, the agency will “bombard their phone with text messages,” “bombard their phone with calls,” “delete their online presence,” and “block up their fax machine.”



The GCHQ also likes to use “disruption” techniques in lieu of what it calls “traditional law enforcement” such as evidence-gathering, courts, and prosecutions. In a document entitled “Cyber Offensive Session: Pushing the Boundaries and Action Against Hacktivism,” the GCHQ discusses its targeting of “hacktivists” with, ironically, “denial of service” attacks, a tactic commonly associated with hackers:



The British surveillance agency also uses a team of social scientists, including psychologists, to develop techniques of “online HUMINT” (human intelligence) and “strategic influence disruption.” The document “The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations” is devoted to these tactics. Prepared by the agency’s HSOC (Human Science Operation Cell), the paper claims to draw on sociology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and biology, among other fields, to maximize the GCHQ’s online deception skills.

One slide shows how to engage in “Dissimulation—Hide the Real,” while propagating “Simulation—Show the False.” It examines “the psychological building blocks of deception” and the “map of technologies” used to carry out the deceptions, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and “Web Pages.”

Emphasizing that “people make decisions for emotional reasons not rational ones,” the GCHQ contends that online behavior is driven by “mirroring” (“people copy each other while in social interaction with them”), “accommodation,” and “mimicry” (“adoption of specific social traits by the communicator from the other participant”).

The document then lays out what it calls the “Disruption Operational Playbook.” This includes “infiltration operation,” “ruse operation,” “false flag operation,” and “sting operation.” It vows a “full roll out” of the disruption program “by early 2013” as “150+ staff [are] fully trained.”


Under the title “Magic Techniques & Experiment,” the document references “Legitimisation of violence,” “Constructing experience in mind of targets which should be accepted so they don’t realize,” and “Optimising deception channels.”

Such government plans to monitor and influence Internet communications and disseminate false information online have long been a source of speculation. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, a close Obama adviser, the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and an appointee to the White House panel to review NSA activities, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-“independent” advocates for “cognitive infiltration” of online groups, chat rooms, social networks, and websites, as well as off-line activist groups.

These GCHQ documents show for the first time that these controversial techniques to deceive and harm reputations have moved from the proposal stage to implementation.

* * *

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