When Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, sat down with President Barack Obama at the White House in April to discuss Syrian chemical weapons, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and climate change, it was a cordial, routine exchange.
The National Security Agency nonetheless went to work in advance and intercepted Ban's talking points for the meeting, a feat that the agency later reported as an “operational highlight” in a weekly internal brag sheet. It is hard to imagine what edge this could have given Obama in a friendly chat, if he even saw the NSA's modest scoop. (The White House won't say.)
But it was emblematic of an agency that for decades has operated on the principle that any eavesdropping that can be done on a foreign target of any conceivable interest — now or in the future — should be done. After all, U.S. intelligence officials reasoned, who's going to find out?
From thousands of classified documents, the National Security Agency emerges as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations. It spies routinely on friends as well as foes, as has become obvious in recent weeks.
Obama found himself in September standing uncomfortably beside the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who was furious at being named as a target of NSA eavesdropping. Since then, there has been a parade of such protests, from the European Union, Mexico, France, Germany and Spain. U.S. officials joke that soon there will be complaints from foreign leaders feeling slighted because the agency had not targeted them.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has repeatedly dismissed such objections as brazen hypocrisy from countries that do their own share of spying. But in a recent interview, he acknowledged that the scale of eavesdropping by the NSA, with 35,000 workers and $10.8 billion a year, sets it apart.
“There's no question that from a capability standpoint we probably dwarf everybody on the planet, just about, with perhaps the exception of Russia and China,” he said.
Since Edward Snowden began releasing the agency's documents in June, the unrelenting stream of disclosures has opened the most extended debate on the agency's mission since its creation in 1952. Much of the focus has been on whether the agency violates Americans' privacy, but the anger expressed around the world about American surveillance — an issue under examination by Congress and two review panels — has prompted far broader questions.
If secrecy can no longer be taken for granted, when does the political risk of eavesdropping overseas outweigh its intelligence benefits? Should foreign citizens, many of whom now rely on American companies for email and Internet services, have any privacy protections from the NSA? Will the American Internet giants' collaboration with the agency, voluntary or otherwise, damage them in international markets? And are the agency's clandestine efforts to weaken encryption making the Internet less secure for everyone?
Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and the author of a 2009 book on the NSA, said there is no precedent for the hostile questions coming at the agency from all directions.
“From NSA's point of view, it's a disaster,” Aid said. “Every new disclosure reinforces the notion that the agency needs to be reined in.”
A review of classified agency documents, obtained by Snowden and shared with the New York Times by the Guardian, offers a rich sampling of the agency's global operations and culture. (At the agency's request, the Times is withholding some details that officials said could compromise intelligence operations.)
The NSA seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the U.S. government's knowledge of the world. To some Americans, that may be a comfort. To others, and to people overseas, that may suggest an agency out of control.
Obama and top intelligence officials have defended the agency's role in preventing terrorist attacks. But as the documents make clear, the focus on counterterrorism is a misleadingly narrow sales pitch for an agency with an almost unlimited agenda. Its scale and aggressiveness are breathtaking.
THE GLOBAL PHONE BOOK
No investment seems too great if it adds to the agency's global phone book. After mounting a major eavesdropping effort focused on a climate change conference in Bali in 2007, agency analysts stationed in Australia's outback were especially thrilled by one catch: the cellphone number of Bali's police chief.
“Our mission,” says the agency's current five-year plan, which has not been officially scheduled for declassification until 2032, “is to answer questions about threatening activities that others mean to keep hidden.”
The aspirations are grandiose: to “utterly master” foreign intelligence carried on communications networks. The language is corporate: “Our business processes need to promote data-driven decision-making.” But the tone is also strikingly moralistic for a government bureaucracy. Perhaps to counter any notion that eavesdropping is a shady enterprise, signals intelligence, or Sigint, the term of art for electronic intercepts, is presented as the noblest of callings.
“Sigint professionals must hold the moral high ground, even as terrorists or dictators seek to exploit our freedoms,” the plan declares. “Some of our adversaries will say or do anything to advance their cause; we will not.”
The NSA documents taken by Snowden and shared with the Times, numbering in the thousands and mostly dating from 2007 to 2012, are part of a collection of about 50,000 items that focus mainly on the NSA's British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.
Though far from comprehensive, the documents give a sense of the agency's reach and abilities. But the documents released by Snowden sometimes also seem to underscore the limits of what even the most intensive intelligence collection can achieve by itself.
Blanket NSA eavesdropping in Afghanistan, described in the documents as covering government offices and the hideouts of second-tier Taliban militants alike, has failed to produce a clear victory against a low-tech enemy. The agency kept track as Syria amassed its arsenal of chemical weapons — but that knowledge did nothing to prevent the gruesome slaughter outside Damascus in August.
MAPPING MESSAGE TRAILS
In May 2009, analysts at the agency learned that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was to make a rare trip to Kurdistan province in the country's mountainous northwest. The agency immediately organized a high-tech espionage mission, part of a continuing project focused on Khamenei called Operation Dreadnought.
Working closely with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles satellite photography, as well as GCHQ, the NSA team studied the Iranian leader's entourage, its vehicles and its weaponry from satellites, and it intercepted air traffic messages as planes and helicopters took off and landed.
It studied Iranian air defense radar stations and recorded the travelers' rich communications trail, including Iranian satellite coordinates collected by an NSA program called Ghosthunter. The point was not so much to catch the Iranian leader's words, but to gather the data for blanket eavesdropping on Iran in the event of a crisis.
This “communications fingerprinting,” as a document called it, is the key to what the NSA does. It allows the agency's computers to scan the stream of international communications and pluck out messages tied, for instance, to Iran's supreme leader. In a crisis — say, a showdown over Iran's nuclear program — the ability to tap into the communications of leaders, generals and scientists might give a crucial advantage.
This investment in collection is driven by pressure from the agency's “customers,” in government jargon, not only at the White House, Pentagon, FBI and CIA, but also spread across the Departments of State and Energy, Homeland Security and Commerce, and the U.S. trade representative.
By many accounts, the agency provides more than half of the intelligence nuggets delivered to the White House each morning in the President's Daily Brief — a measure of success for American spies. In every international crisis, American policymakers look to the NSA for inside information.
PRESSURE TO GET EVERYTHING
That creates intense pressure not to miss anything. When that is combined with an ample budget and near-invisibility to the public, the result is aggressive surveillance of the kind that has sometimes gotten the agency in trouble with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a U.S. federal court that polices its programs for breaches of Americans' privacy.
In the funding boom that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency expanded and decentralized far beyond its Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland, building or expanding major facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington state and Utah.
Its officers also operate out of major overseas stations in England, Australia, South Korea and Japan, at overseas military bases, and from locked rooms housing the Special Collection Service inside U.S. missions abroad.
The agency has turned the nation's Internet and telecommunications companies into collection partners, installing filters in their facilities, serving them with court orders, building back doors into their software and acquiring keys to break their encryption.
But even that vast American-run Web is only part of the story. For decades, the NSA has shared eavesdropping duties with the other members of the so-called Five Eyes, the Sigint agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. More limited cooperation occurs with many more countries, including formal arrangements called Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes and Nacsi, an alliance of the agencies of 26 NATO countries.
The extent of Sigint sharing can be surprising: “NSA may pursue a relationship with Vietnam,” one 2009 GCHQ document reported.
But a recent GCHQ training document suggests that not everything is shared, even between the United States and Britain. “Economic well-being reporting,” it says, referring to intelligence gathered to aid the British economy, “cannot be shared with any foreign partner.”
As at the school lunch table, decisions on who gets left out can cause hurt feelings: “Germans were a little grumpy at not being invited to join the 9-Eyes group,” one 2009 document says.
And in a delicate spy-versus-spy dance, sharing takes place even with governments that are themselves important NSA targets, notably Israel.
THE LIMITS OF SPYING
The techniques described in the Snowden documents can make the NSA seem omniscient, and nowhere in the world is that impression stronger than in Afghanistan. But the agency's capabilities at the tactical level have not been nearly enough to produce clear-cut strategic success there, in the United States' longest war.
A single daily report from June 2011 from the NSA's station in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the heart of Taliban country, illustrates the intensity of eavesdropping coverage, requiring 15 pages to describe a day's work.
The agency listened while insurgents from the Haqqani network mounted an attack on the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul, overhearing the attackers talking to their bosses in Pakistan's tribal area and recording events minute by minute.
NSA officers listened as two Afghan Foreign Ministry officials prepared for a meeting between President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Iranian officials, assuring them that relations with the United States “would in no way threaten the interests of Iran,” which they decided Karzai should describe as a “brotherly country.” The NSA eavesdropped as the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, consulted his European Union counterpart, Vygaudas Usackas, on how to respond to an Afghan court's decision to overturn the election of 62 members of Parliament.
Such reports flowed from the agency's Kandahar station day after day, year after year, and surely strengthened the American campaign against the Taliban. But they also suggest the limits of intelligence against a complex political and military challenge.
The NSA recorded the hotel attack, but it had not prevented it. It tracked Karzai's government, but he remained a difficult and volatile partner. Its surveillance was crucial in the capture or killing of many enemy fighters, but not nearly enough to remove the Taliban's ominous shadow from Afghanistan's future.
MINING ALL THE TIDBITS
In the Afghan reports and many others, a striking paradox is the odd intimacy of a sprawling, technology-driven agency with its targets. It is the one-way intimacy of the eavesdropper, as NSA employees virtually enter the office cubicles of obscure government officials and the spartan hideouts of drug traffickers and militants around the world.
Even with terrorists, NSA units can form a strangely personal relationship. The NSA-GCHQ wiki, a top secret blog that Snowden downloaded, lists 14 specialists scattered in various stations assigned to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group that carried out the bloody attack on Mumbai in 2008, with titles including “Pakistan Access Pursuit Team” and “Techniques Discovery Branch.” Under the code name Treaclebeta, NSA's hackers at “Tailored Access Operations” also played a role.
In the wiki's casual atmosphere, U.S. and British eavesdroppers exchange the peculiar shoptalk of the secret world. “I don't normally use Heretic to scan the fax traffic, I use Nucleon,” one user writes, describing technical tools for searching intercepted documents.
But most striking are the one-on-one pairings of spies and militants; Bryan is assigned to listen in on a man named Haroon, and Paul keeps an ear on Fazl.
A FLOOD OF DETAILS
One NSA officer on the Lashkar-e-Taiba beat let slip that some of his eavesdropping turned out to be largely pointless, perhaps because of the agency's chronic shortage of skilled linguists. He “ran some queries” to read intercepted communications of certain Lashkar-e-Taiba members, he wrote in the wiki, adding: “Most of it is in Arabic or Farsi, so I can't make much of it.”
It is a glimpse of the unsurprising fact that sometimes the agency's expensive and expansive efforts accomplish little. Despite the agency's embrace of corporate jargon on goal-setting and evaluation, it operates without public oversight in an arena in which achievements are hard to measure.
Whether the Snowden disclosures will result in deeper change is uncertain. Joel Brenner, the agency's former inspector general, says much of the criticism is unfair, reflecting a naivete about the realpolitik of spying. “The agency is being browbeaten for doing too well the things it's supposed to do,” he said.
Another former insider worries less about foreign leaders' sensitivities than the potential danger the sprawling agency poses at home. William Binney, a former senior NSA official who has become an outspoken critic, says he has no problem with spying on foreign targets like Brazil's president or the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. “That's pretty much what every government does,” he said. “It's the foundation of diplomacy.” But Binney said that without new leadership, new laws and top-to-bottom change, the agency will represent a threat of “turnkey totalitarianism” — the capability to turn its awesome power, now directed mainly against other countries, on the U.S. public.
“I think it's already starting to happen,” he said. “That's what we have to stop.”