August 21, 2013
The National Security Agency’s powers to spy on American citizens may be limited, but the federal law enforcement agency has a surveillance system so deeply integrated into the nation’s telecommunications, it can reach three-quarters of all U.S. Internet traffic, the Wall Street Journal is reporting.
While the NSA’s primary focus is on gathering foreign communications, American e-mails and conversations are frequent casualties in the hunt for foreign intelligence.
Current and former U.S. officials and others who are “familiar” with the system, say the NSA’s collection of “purely domestic communications” are usually incidental in its search for foreign intelligence. The sources also told the WSJ, however, that the NSA can hang on to e-mails sent from one citizen to another in the U.S. and even sift through domestic phone calls made via the Internet.
It also seems the surveillance programs set up with each telecommunications company has its own code name. Blarney, Fairview, Oakstar, Lithium and Stormbrew are just a few of the programs that filter and gather information, the WSJ reports. Blarney, for example, is the codename created for its surveillance dealings with AT&T.
The report also indicates the NSA has worked with wireless carriers and other such companies to install equipment that copies, scans and filters significant portions of the traffic that makes its way through the U.S. Internet infrastructure.
In the first round of data collection, the NSA requests telecom companies send the Internet traffic that is likely to contain foreign intelligence. According to a WSJ source, these requests focus on particular areas of interest. “It’s still a large amount of data, but not everything in the world,” the source said.
After the NSA copies the traffic, it must then decide what to keep based on “strong selectors” such as e-mail addresses or IP addresses that are linked to an organization of interest.
According to the WSJ, this system was put in place before the 9/11 attacks, but has grown in scope over the years.
While the documentation NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden released to the media two months ago revealed the agency was acquiring phone records and storing metadata, the WSJ report is a good indication its surveillance programs are far more comprehensive than first reported.
In fact, if the publication’s sources are correct, it appears the NSA is able to track virtually any online activity if it chooses to do so.
The White House has described the NSA’s surveillance as a key component in its fight against terrorism.
During a speech last week, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated that “America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.”
“Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people and, in many cases, protect our allies,” Obama said.
“It’s true we have significant capabilities. What’s also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do, refuse to show. That includes, by the way, some of America’s most vocal critics. We shouldn’t forget the difference between the ability of our government to collect information online, under strict guidelines and for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw their own citizens in prison for what they say online.”
Obama said the NSA is taking steps to be more transparent by putting in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer who will “release information that details its mission, authorities and oversight.” The intelligence community is also creating a website to “serve as a hub for further transparency.”
“And this will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn’t do, how it carries out its mission and why it does so,” Obama said.
Another step toward transparency touted by the president is the formation of an independent group of experts to review the government’s surveillance programs.
What has raised more than a few eyebrows, however, is the appointment of director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to head the group.
Clapper has become famous for his “No, sir” response to Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) 2011 question about if the National Security Agency (NSA) collects information on U.S. citizens. Now that the extent of the NSA surveillance has come to light, Clapper has said he simply misunderstood the senator’s question, adding that he thought Wyden was inquiring only about e-mail when in fact he was inquiring about all data. Clapper has since said his answer was “clearly erroneous.”
The fact that the panel will report directly to Clapper has many saying Obama’s choice proves he is not interested in a truly open review of the NSA’s surveillance programs.
The review group has been given 60 days from the time of its establishment, to submit its interim findings to Obama via Clapper. A final report and recommendations are to be submitted through the Defense for Intelligence (DNI) no later than Dec. 15.
Aside from ordering an “independent” review of the government’s intelligence and communications technologies, Obama has also directed his government to work with Congress to “pursue appropriate reforms to our nation’s surveillance programs and the court that oversees them,” according to a White House document. The president has pledged to work with Congress to “improve the public’s confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISC.” It is the job of the top secret court to approve or disapprove the surveillance requests of federal law enforcement agencies.