Readings & Links: NSA Secrets

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In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the NSA launched what would become known as “the program” — a massive domestic surveillance operation designed to prevent terrorist attacks by collecting the communications of millions of Americans. “The program” was once among the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, but leaks by insiders like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have since exposed the operation to the world. Here are some highlights of those leaks, as well as a series of government reports on the NSA programs.

The Leaks

“Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials. Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible ‘dirty numbers’ linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said.”

“A program that was supposed to help the National Security Agency pluck out electronic data crucial to the nation’s safety is not up and running more than six years and $1.2 billion after it was launched, according to current and former government officials … The stakes could scarcely be higher. A major failure leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, involved communications intelligence, investigators found. More than 30 hints of the impending attack had been collected in the previous three years but had sat, unnoted, in the NSA’s databases, according to a joint congressional inquiry into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence operations.”

“Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency’s drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency’s ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say … Intelligence experts told The Sun that as a result of these failures, agency computers have trouble talking to each other and frequently crash, key bits of data are sometimes lost, and vital intelligence can be overlooked – all as the agency aggressively argues for broader surveillance power under the president’s warrantless wiretapping program.”

“The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April … The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

“The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post … The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.”

“The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by The Guardian. The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of e-mails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.”

The source behind The Guardian’s NSA files talks to Glenn Greenwald about his motives for the biggest intelligence leak in a generation.

“U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and e-mails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.”

“The National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.”

“The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials. By tapping those links, the agency has positioned itself to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans. The NSA does not keep everything it collects, but it keeps a lot.”

“The National Security Agency is secretly piggybacking on the tools that enable Internet advertisers to track consumers, using “cookies” and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.
The agency’s internal presentation slides, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, show that when companies follow consumers on the Internet to better serve them advertising, the technique opens the door for similar tracking by the government. The slides also suggest that the agency is using these tracking techniques to help identify targets for offensive hacking operations.”

“The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents.
The untargeted collection and storage of SMS messages – including their contacts – is revealed in a joint investigation between the Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News based on material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

“The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of “leaky” smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users’ private information across the internet, according to top secret documents.”

“[Britain's surveillance agency] GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.”

“The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording ‘100 percent’ of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden
A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.”

Government Reports

This classified internal NSA Inspector General report from 2009 was leaked by Snowden and first published in The Guardian. Snowden later told The Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman that reading the report “made a big impression on him, because it was clear, from that history, that the Justice Department had come to believe that parts of the program were illegal.”

This unclassified report, written by the Inspectors General of five federal agencies, examined the effectiveness of president’s surveillance program. It found that intelligence community officials “had difficulty citing specific instances” in which the program “had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes.”

This report was issued by the Defense Department’s Inspector General following a complaint about fraud and abuse at the NSA by former congressional aide Diane Roark and former NSA employees Bill Binney, Edward Loomis and Kirk Wiebe. It is largely redacted.

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