The National Security Agency (NSA) operates under the jurisdiction of the Defense Department and is today the largest and costliest of all U.S. intelligence organizations. Its primary duty is to clandestinely collect and analyze data related to foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. The Agency is also responsible for the protection of U.S. government communication and information systems. The 26-building complex that comprises the NSA's headquarters is located on a 660-acre plot of land on the western side of Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. The complex is guarded by a 400-man NSA police force equipped with assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, attack dogs, and armored personnel carriers. (Source and Source)
In the summer of 2013, public controversy arose in response to the unauthorized revelations -- by a former NSA employee named Edward Snowden -- of the Agency's vast and unprecedented capacity to spy on the private communications of American citizens. This page provides some historical context regarding the NSA's traditional mission and activities, and a timeline of the key revelations that emerged in 2013.
October 24, 1952: President Truman establishes the National Security Agency (NSA) as an heir to the Armed Forces Security Agency, which was created on May 20, 1949 to help crack German and Japanese communications codes during World War II. (Source)
July 27, 1993: United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18 establishes policies to “ensure that the missions and functions” of the United States Signals Intelligence System (SIGINT) “are conducted in a manner that safeguards the constitutional rights of U.S. persons.” Section 4 of this Directive spells out precisely the ways in which the NSA is permitted to intercept the communications of U.S. citizens. (Source and Source)
January 13, 2000: Then-NSA Director Michael Hayden states that his Agency's electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens:
- may only target the communications of U.S. residents after the NSA obtains a federal court order suggesting that a particular individual might be "an agent of a foreign power"; and
- may not target any U.S. person overseas without the prior approval of the Attorney General, who must have probable cause to believe that the individual in question "is an agent of a foreign power, or a spy, terrorist, saboteur, or someone who aides or abets them."
With regard to the unintentional collection of communications to, from, or about U.S. citizens, Hayden stresses that such information is not retained by the NSA "unless the information is necessary to understand a particular piece of foreign intelligence or assess its importance." (Source)
January 2001: Two longtime NSA employees, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe, complete their development of the so-called Thin Thread data-collection and information-processing system, which they have equipped with an “anonymizing” feature designed to ensure Fourth Amendment protections for the private communications of U.S. citizens. But NSA leadership, including then-Director General Michael Hayden, give preference istead to Trailblazer—a system which thus far exists only on paper and is on track toward becoming far more costly than Thin Thread. (Source)
October 31, 2001: A number of whistleblowers reveal the extent of the NSA’s surveillance of the communications of U.S. citizens. The aforementioned William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe resign from the Agency because they believe that a component of Thin Thread (which they developed) has been used to illegally spy on Americans' private communications. Moreover, Binney and Wiebe contend that if Thin Thread had been utilized properly, it could have detected the 9/11 plot in its planning phase and thus could have prevented the attacks. (Source)
Early 2000s: Binney and Wiebe disclose details about the NSA’s massive domestic spying program, Stellar Wind, which intercepts domestic communications (phone calls and emails) without protections for U.S. citizens. According to Binney, the NSA has been given access to telecommunications companies’ domestic and international billing records, and has intercepted between 15 and 20 trillion communications since 9/11. Binney further discloses that Stellar Wind, which is based on a component of the Thin Thread capability but lacks the latter's built-in privacy protections, is classfied as a “Terrorist Surveillance Program” in order to give cover to its possibly unconstitutional nature. (Source)
May 2006: The NSA begins violating the rules governing telephone-record surveillance by collecting metadata on millions of calls that are made to (or from) a select list of nearly 4,000 phone numbers whose owners -- some of whom are based in the United States -- clearly have no terrorist ties. This abuse will continue until January 24, 2009, by which time the list of improperly monitored phone numbers has grown to about 16,000. Moreover, the abuse will not be publicly exposed until September 10, 2013.
2007: The NSA launches a clandestine electronic-surveillance, data-mining program whose government code name is PRISM. This program stores Internet communications which the NSA obtains from Internet companies (like Google, Inc.) under Section 702 of the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]. Through these PRISM requests, the NSA can decode even communications that were encrypted when they were first transmitted, and can retrieve stored data that telecommunication filtering systems have already discarded. (The PRISM program's existence will not be known to the public until Edward Snowden's revelations in June 2013.)
2010: A Washington Post article reports that “every day, collection systems at the [NSA] intercept and store 1.7bn emails, phone calls and other type of communications.” (Source)
February 4, 2011: Attorney General Eric Holder signs a directive ordering Skype to provide the NSA not only with information about video and audio chats (on Skype), but also about Skype's cloud storage service known as SkyDrive. (Source)
May 2012: An NSA audit counts 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to, or distribution of legally protected communications that occurred during the preceding 12 months. According to the Washington Post: “Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure.” (Source)
December 26, 2012: The Special Source Operations (SSO) directorate inside the NSA announces that it is now capable of collecting far more Internet communications data than ever before.
March 12, 2013: At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tells Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) that the NSA does not engage in widespread surveillance of private U.S. residents. The Clapper-Wyden exchange goes as follows:
Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper: “No, sir.”
Wyden: “It does not?”
Clapper: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect—but not wittingly.” (Source)
April 25, 2013: The top-secret FISA Court issues an order giving the NSA unlimited authority to track phone and email information of American citizens, regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing, for a three-month period that will end on July 19, 2013. Specifically, the court order authorizes the Agency to collect “metadata” on these communications—i.e., the phone numbers of both parties on a call, the location of each party (derived from cell-phone GPS records), the time at which the call is made, and the duration of the call. The FISA order also authorizes NSA surveillance of the subject line of personal emails. The order covers all metadata related to communications where both parties are in the United States, or where one party is in the U.S. and the other is abroad. But it does not cover the contents of the communications themselves. (Source, Source, and Source)
- Peter Eckersley, the Technology Projects Director at the digital civil-liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains the significance of metadata: “Metadata is the perfect place to start if you want to troll through millions of people’s communications to find patterns and to single out smaller groups for closer scrutiny. It will tell you which groups of people go to political meetings together, which groups of people go to church together, which groups of people go to nightclubs together or sleep with each other.... [Such information provides] a deeply intimate window into a person’s psyche.” (Source)
June 5, 2013: Twenty-nine-year-old Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA, issues a host of startling revelations about the extent of the NSA's surveillance activities. Snowden reveals, for instance, that Verizon has been collecting the metadata of millions of its customers' phone records—regardless of whether or not they were suspected of any wrongdoing—since FISA's court order in April. (Source)
June 6, 2013: James Bamford, a journalist and author of several books on the NSA, says: “Here we are, under the Obama administration, doing it sort of like the Bush administration on steroids. This [April 2013 FISA] order here is about as broad as it can possibly get, when it comes to focusing on personal communications. There’s no warrant, there’s no suspicion, there’s no probable cause … it sounds like something from East Germany.” (Source)
June 6, 2013: The White House defends the NSA's collection of Americans' telephone communication records as “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” (Source)
June 6, 2013: At a U.S. Senate hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder is asked about the NSA phone surveillance program and responds evasively, saying that this hearing is not an appropriate place to talk about the matter, but that he will be glad to discuss it at some other time and place. (Source)
June 6, 2013: Several former NSA employees-turned-whistleblowers say that the Agency's surveillance of private communications has been going on for years, involving all the major U.S. phone companies. One whistleblower estimates that the NSA collects metadata records on 3 billion phone calls per day. (Source)
June 6, 2013: The PRISM program -- a collaboration between the NSA, FBI, and many major tech companies -- is made public. Through PRISM, the NSA has been tapping into the servers of nine major U.S. Internet companies: Microsoft (since May 2007), Yahoo (since 2008), Google (since 2009), Facebook (since 2009), PalTalk (since 2009), YouTube (since 2010), AOL (since 2011), Skype (since 2011), and Apple (since 2012). As such, the Agency has had the capacity to monitor all audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, connection logs, videos, voice-over-IPs (Skype, for example), file transfers, and social networking details. It is also revealed that Congress has given the Justice Department “authority for a secret order from the [FISA] Court to compel a reluctant [Internet] company 'to comply.'” One intelligence officer who leaked the information to the press says, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.” (Source, Source)
June 7, 2013: During a press conference, President Obama declares: “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this [NSA] program is about.” (Source)
June 8, 2013: Republicans and Democrats alike issue statements against the Obama administration as the NSA spying controversy becomes prominent. Republican Senator Rand Paul states:
“I think the irony is that people voted for President Obama hoping for something different. They were hoping for someone who’d protect the First Amendment, someone who’d protect the Fourth Amendment ...”
Similarly, far-Left Independent Senator Bernie Sanders says:
“I worry what it would mean for American civil liberties, but I will tell you I never ever expected that under any definition of that legislation that it would mean the phone calls of millions and millions of Americans—virtually none of whom the government has any reason to believe is involved in terrorism—would be checked by the United States government.” (Source)
June 9, 2013: Director of National Intelligence spokesman Shawn Turner says that the NSA controversy will be referred to the Department of Justice for investigation. “The Intelligence Community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures,” says Turner. “Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law.” (Source)
June 9, 2013: In response to the Obama administration's claim that the PATRIOT Act authorizes the NSA's surveillance of American citizens' private communications, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the framers of the PATRIOT Act, says that the expansive NSA surveillance goes far beyond what the Act intended:
“The administration claims authority to sift through details of our private lives because the Patriot Act says that it can. I disagree. I authored the PATRIOT Act, and this is an abuse of that law....
The legislation had to be narrowly tailored—everyone agreed that we could not allow unrestrained surveillance.... [T]he PATRIOT Act was never intended to allow the daily spying the Obama administration is conducting.” (Source)
June 10, 2013: Edward Snowden states: “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.” (Source)
June 10, 2013: Director of National Intelligence spokesman Shawn Turner says that intelligence officials are “currently reviewing the damage that has been done by [Snowden's] recent disclosures.” Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre says, “The Department of Justice is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access.” (Source)
June 10, 2013: White House spokesman Jay Carney says that the Obama administration has no comment regarding NSA leaker Edward Snowden because there is an ongoing investigation into the matter. “I think the President's record on transparency is broad and significant,” states Carney. (Source)
June 11, 2013: The Guardian acquires Top Secret documents about the NSA data-mining tool known as Boundless Informant, which shows all data that has been retrieved on a country-by-country basis. For example, Boundless Informant reveals that the NSA gathered 3 billion pieces of intelligence from U.S. computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013, and 97 billion pieces of intelligence from networks worldwide during the same time period. (Source)
June 12, 2013: The ACLU becomes the first organization to file a lawsuit against the NSA for the secret monitoring of American citizens, charging that the program violates the constitutional rights of free speech, association, and privacy. (Source)
June 12, 2013: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 12th that the NSA does not collect information on millions of Americans, tries to clarify that assertion, telling NBC News' Andrea Mitchell:
“I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked [a] 'When are you going to ... stop beating your wife' kind of question, which is meaning not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying 'no'.” (Source)
June 12, 2013: Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) writes: “It now appears clear that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress and the American people. Members of Congress can't make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community wilfully makes false statements. Perjury is a serious crime. Mr Clapper should resign immediately.” (Source)
June 12, 2013: In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, NSA director Keith Alexander states that his Agency's surveillance has disrupted, or helped to disrupt, dozens of terrorist threats. He adds that Edward Snowden was incorrect in claiming that it was possible for the NSA to tap in to any private phone call or read any private email. (Source and Source)
June 14, 2013: An increasing number of polls show that American citizens believe that the NSA's surveillance activities are too broad and intrusive; people are especially worried that their private information will be leaked by a rogue operator. (Source)
June 14, 2013: A former NSA computer technician says that thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies work closely with U.S. national security agencies and, in the process, receive access to classified intelligence. These companies provide sensitive information to the agencies, in return for guarantees that they will not be held liable in any future lawsuits related to their actions in this capacity. (Source)
June 15, 2013: U.S. intelligence officials claim that the data collected by the NSA has thwarted terrorist plots in more than 20 countries, including the United States. They also argue that the NSA surveillance programs are far less sweeping than their detractors allege. (Source)
June 15, 2013: Contrary to President Obama’s assurances, the NSA concedes in a classified briefing (to members of Congress) that it does not need court authorization to monitor the contents of phone calls, emails, text messages, and instant messages. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), who attended that briefing, confirms that he was told that the contents of any phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding” to do so. (Source)
June 15, 2013: Soon after the aforementioned revelations, the Director of National Intelligence Public Affairs Office says: “The statement that a single analyst can eavesdrop on domestic communications without proper legal authorization is incorrect and was not briefed to Congress.” (Source)
June 17, 2013: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) says that aside from members of the congressional intelligence committees, most members of Congress have been “kept totally in the dark” about the NSA surveillance programs. Cruz adds that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to trust President Obama after learning that the IRS targeted Obama's political opponents, the Justice Department targeted journalists with whom it was dissatisfied, and the State Department misled the public about the 9/11/12 terrorist attacks in Benghazi. (Source)
June 17, 2013: Several newly released polls indicate that Americans’ level of trust in government is nearly at an all-time low. (Source)
June 17, 2013: When President Obama is asked about Edward Snowden in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, he says: “The case has been referred to the DOJ for criminal investigation … and possible extradition. I will leave it up to them to answer those questions.” (Source)
June 17, 2013: President Obama tells interviewer 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 same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause.” (Source)
June 18, 2013: Obama further tells Charlie Rose: “We're going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place ... that their phone calls aren't being listened into, their text messages aren't being monitored, their emails are not being read by some Big Brother somewhere.” (Source)
June 18, 2013: In testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, NSA Director General Keith Alexander says that his Agency's surveillance program has thwarted approximately 50 terrorist plots worldwide, including one that was directed at the New York Stock Exchange. (Source)
June 18, 2013: Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, asks NSA Director General Keith Alexander whether the NSA has the “ability to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails under these two programs.” Alexander responds, “No, we do not have that authority.”
Former state court judge Andrew Napolitano subsequently tells Fox News: “Of course, he [Alexander] doesn’t have the legal authority to [listen to] the phone calls. That’s not what the question asked. The question asked, ‘Does he have the practical ability to do so?’ and he couldn’t answer that because the answer is ‘yes.’” (Source)
June 18, 2013: New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly lashes out against the NSA's phone and Internet data-collection programs, saying: “I think if you listen to Snowden, he indicates that there's some sort of malfeasance, people ... sitting around and watching the data. So I think the question is: What sort of oversight is there inside the NSA to prevent that abuse, if it's taking place?" (Source)
June 20, 2013: It is reported that FISA court-approved policies allow the NSA to:
- keep data that could potentially contain details about private American citizens for up to five years;
- retain and make use of “inadvertently acquired” domestic communications if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, encryptions, or any information relevant to cybersecurity;
- preserve “foreign intelligence information” contained within attorney-client communications; and
- access the content of communications gathered from “U.S.-based machine[s]” or phone numbers in order to establish if targets are located in the U.S. (Source)
June 20, 2013: According to the Guardian, “The broad scope of the [FISA] court orders, and the nature of the procedures set out in the documents, appear to clash with assurances from President Obama and senior intelligence officials that the NSA could not access Americans' call or email information without warrants.” (Source)
June 27, 2013: It is reported that for more than two years, the Obama administration permitted the NSA to continue collecting a vast number of records pertaining to the email and Internet usage of Americans, and that a judge on the FISA Court had approved a bulk collection order for Internet metadata “every 90 days.” Shawn Turner, the Obama administration's Director of Communications for National Intelligence, says: “The Internet metadata collection program authorized by the FISA court was discontinued in 2011 for operational and resource reasons and has not been restarted. The program was discontinued by the executive branch as the result of an interagency review.” (Source)
June 29, 2013: Secret documents obtained by Spiegel reveal that the NSA in recent years has: (a) conducted online surveillance of European citizens; (b) specifically bugged buildings that housed European Union (EU) institutions; and (c) infiltrated the EU representation's computer network, thereby gaining the ability to monitor discussions in EU rooms as well as emails and internal documents on the computers. (Source)
June 30, 2013: According to the latest leaked documents by Edward Snowden, U.S. intelligence services are currently spying on the EU's mission in New York and its embassy in Washington. One document from 2010 lists 38 embassies and missions as “targets” of NSA spying; the document details the methods used against each, ranging from bugs implanted in electronic communications gear, to cable taps, to the collection of transmissions with specialized antennae. (Source)
June 30, 2013: The revelations about the NSA's spying on EU targets spark much disapproval from foreign officials in Europe:
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”
- German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: “If the media reports are true, it is reminiscent of the actions of enemies during the Cold War. It is beyond imagination that our friends in the U.S. view Europeans as the enemy.”
- French Premier Francois Hollande: “We cannot accept this kind of behavior. We demand that this cease immediately.”
- French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: “I was always sure that dictatorships, some authoritarian systems, tried to listen ... but that measures like that are now practiced by an ally, by a friend, that is shocking, in the case that it is true.”
- Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament: “I am deeply worried and shocked about the allegations of U.S. authorities spying on EU offices. If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-U.S. relations. On behalf of the European parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the U.S. authorities with regard to these allegations.”
- Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn: “If these reports are true, it's disgusting. U.S. spying was out of control. The U.S. would do better to monitor its intelligence services instead of its allies.”
- Elmar Brok, Chair of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee: “How can you negotiate when you have got to fear that your own negotiating position has been intercepted in advance?”
- Austria's Hannes Swoboda, head of the Social Democrats in the European Parliament: “We demand full disclosure on the alleged bugging and wire-tapping of EU representatives by the U.S. authorities, including the potential involvement of EU member states' intelligence services. The EU and U.S. have to see eye to eye in this world and share relevant information. Spying is certainly not the right way to reinforce co-operation.” (Source, Source, and Source)
July 1, 2013: The German federal prosecutor's office opens inquiries into determining whether German laws have been breached by the NSA surveillance practices. (Source)
July 1, 2013: President Obama, during a trip to Africa, tries to defuse the tensions between the United States and the European Union by declaring:
“The U.S. agencies were simply behaving in the same way as other intelligence organizations everywhere. Not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there's an intelligence service—here's one thing that they're going to be doing: they're going to be trying to understand the world better and what's going on in world capitals around the world. [We are] seeking additional insight beyond what's available through open sources. If that weren't the case, then there'd be no use for an intelligence service.” (Source)
Secretary of State John Kerry adds:
“The NSA activities were not unusual. Every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations.” (Source)
July 7, 2013: Edward Snowden claims that NSA spies are “in bed together with the Germans and most other Western states,” and explains that the partnerships are organized so that authorities in other countries can “insulate their political leaders from the backlash” if it becomes public “how grievously they're violating global privacy.” (Source)
July 9, 2013: A Brazilian newspaper reports that according to documents provided by Edward Snowden, the U.S. has been collecting data on telephone calls and emails from several countries in Latin America, including important allies such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. (Source)
July 11, 2013: Newly released documents show in detail how Microsoft taught the NSA how to decode encrypted emails on Outlook and Hotmail, how to monitor video and audio chats on Skype, and how to access Skype's cloud storage service known as SkyDrive. Evidence shows that on February 4, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder signed a directive ordering Skype to comply. (Source)
July 13, 2013: Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first published the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, reports that Snowden has documents about U.S. spy programs hidden away in different parts of the world, and that all of them would be highly damaging to the United States. Further, Greenwald says in a newspaper interview: “Snowden has enough [sic] information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had. The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare.” (Source)
July 17, 2013: Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, NSA deputy director Chris Inglis says that analysts evaluating terror activity currently look "two or three hops" from terror suspects (as opposed to the traditional "two hops"). As AtlanticWire.com explains:
“This meant that if the NSA were following a phone metadata or web trail from a terror suspect, it could also look at the calls from the people that suspect has spoken with—one hop. And then, the calls that second person had also spoken with—two hops.... And now: A third hop. For a sense of scale, researchers at the University of Milan found in 2011 that everyone on the Internet was, on average, 4.74 steps away from anyone else. The NSA explores relationships up to three of those steps.” (Source)
July 28, 2013: Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald tells ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that the “incredibly powerful and invasive” NSA surveillance programs allow even low-level analysts to search the private emails and phone calls of Americans:
“The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and emails in their databases that they’ve collected over the last several years. And what these programs are, are very simple screens, like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things. It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.... There are legal constraints for how you can spy on Americans. You can’t target them without going to the FISA court. But these systems allow analysts to listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.” (Source)
July 31, 2013: Citing documents from Edward Snowden, the Guardian publishes training materials for the NSA's XKeyscore program, which the British newspaper describes as the Agency's most expansive system -- one that that can provide “real-time” interception of “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.” According to the report, intelligence analysts can, without review by a court or NSA staff, conduct surveillance through XKeyscore by providing nothing more than a “broad justification” for the search. In 2012, there were at least 41 billion total records collected and stored in XKeyscore during a single 30-day period. Another NSA tool, called DNI Presenter, can be used not only to read the content of stored emails, but also to enable an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages. (Source and Source)
July 31, 2013: the Guardian reports that “the NSA has created a multi-tiered system that allows analysts to store 'interesting' content in [various] databases … for up to five years.” (Source)
August 20, 2013: The Wall Street Journal reports that the NSA “has built a surveillance network that covers more Americans' Internet communications than officials have publicly disclosed,” and that the system “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.” “In some cases,” says the Journal, “it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology.” (Source)
September 10, 2013: It is learned that from May 2006 through January 24, 2009, the NSA violated the rules governing telephone-record surveillance by collecting metadata on millions of calls that were made to (or from) a select list of some 16,000 phone numbers whose owners -- some of whom were based in the United States -- clearly had no terrorist ties.
October 30, 2013: The Washington Post reports that according to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA is intercepting emails, documents, and other electronic communications as they move: (a) between the privately controlled facilities of the Internet company Google and the public Internet, and (b) between the privately controlled facilities of the Internet company Yahoo and the public Internet. In short, this gives the NSA access to data in nearly real-time. Says the Washington Post report:
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.
According to a top-secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, the NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from internal Yahoo and Google networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — including “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video.
The NSA’s principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency’s British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters . From undisclosed interception points, the NSA and the GCHQ are copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information among the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.
The infiltration is especially striking because the NSA, under a separate program known as PRISM, has front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts through a court-approved process.
The MUSCULAR project appears to be an unusually aggressive use of NSA tradecraft against flagship American companies. The agency is built for high-tech spying, with a wide range of digital tools, but it has not been known to use them routinely against U.S. companies.
(Source and Source)
December 5, 2013: The Washington Post reports that according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials, the NSA is gathering nearly 5 billion records per day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, "enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable." This is made possible by the fact that the internal components of modern cell phones broadcast their locations even when the devices are not being used to place calls or send text messages. Adds the Post:
The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool....
One senior collection manager, speaking on condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said “we are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data is often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among individuals using them.
U.S. officials said the programs that collect and analyze location data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets....
The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.
Still, location data, especially when aggregated over time, is widely regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive. Sophisticated mathematical techniques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. (Source)
December 16, 2013: U.S. District Judge Richard Leon rules that the NSA's bulk collection of phone-call metadata violates privacy rights and thus is unconstitutional. The judge's preliminary ruling favors five plaintiffs challenging the practice, but he limits the decision only to their cases, saying:
"I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment."
In his decision, Judge Leon notes that the government "does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature." However, he puts off enforcing his order barring the government from collecting continuing to collect metadata, pending an appeal by the government.
January 16, 2014: It is reported that the NSA, in an untargeted dragnet program codenamed Dishfire, has collected and stored almost 200 million text messages per day from across the globe, using them to extract such data as location, contact networks and credit card details.
According to The Guardian:
"The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial transactions and more -- including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity.
"An agency presentation from 2011 – subtitled 'SMS Text Messages: A Goldmine to Exploit' – reveals the program collected an average of 194 million text messages a day in April of that year. In addition to storing the messages themselves, a further program known as 'Prefer' conducted automated analysis on the untargeted communications." (Source)
January 17, 2014: President Obama announces that he is appointing John Podesta, a longtime leftist operative and Obama advisor, "to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy" in the aftermath of revelations about the astonishing scope of the NSA's electronic spying programs. (Source)
February 26, 2014: The Obama administration asks the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to hold millions of phone records longer than the current five-year limit. (The FISA Court has regularly given the NSA permission to collect records in bulk from phone companies, but has always required that the agency destroy the records after five years.) The Justice Department contends that the data needs to be maintained as evidence for the many privacy lawsuits filed in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks about NSA surveillance; that the government has a "duty to preserve" the phone records that overrides other obligations; and that "the United States must ensure that all potentially relevant evidence is retained." (Source)
March 7, 2014: FISA Judge Reggie Walton denies the request by the NSA and the Obama administration to keep Internet and phone metadata (gathered through bulk surveillance programs) for a period longer than five years. Says Walton:
“The government seeks to retain these records, not for national security reasons, but because some of them may be relevant in civil litigation in which the destruction of those very same records is being requested. However, the civil plaintiffs potentially interested in preserving the BR [bulk records] metadata have expressed no desire to acquire the records. The great majority of these individuals have never been the subject of investigation by the [FBI] to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Accordingly, the government’s motion is DENIED.”
Walton’s ruling, however, leaves open the possibility that the government could present a follow-up case in an effort to gain the permission it seeks. (Source)
March 17, 2014: The Washington Post reports that according to people with direct knowledge of the documents supplied by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden:
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 ... 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.
The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.
In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.
The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.
At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.
No other NSA program disclosed to date has swallowed a nation’s telephone network whole....
Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a “unique one-off capability,” but last year’s secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides “comprehensive metadata access and content,” with a sixth expected to be in place by last October....
Ubiquitous voice surveillance, even overseas, pulls in a great deal of content from Americans who telephone, visit and work in the target country. It may also be seen as inconsistent with Obama’s Jan. 17 pledge “that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” regardless of nationality, “and that we take their privacy concerns into account.” (Source)
February 2017: On February 13, 2017, the New York Post reported: "President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned late Monday night amid mounting accusations that he had illicit communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States that positioned him as a potential target for blackmail. Flynn submitted his letter of resignation to the president just three weeks into the administration, saying he 'inadvertently' gave Vice President Mike Pence 'incomplete information' on phone calls he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which he allegedly discussed lifting sanctions against Moscow."
The charges against Flynn were based on an NSA interception of a December 2016 phone call between him and a Russian official. That, of course, was during the Obama administration.
Shortly after that December 2016 phone call -- on January 12, 2017 -- the New York Times reported the following highly significant story:
"In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections. The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.
"The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.
"Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch signed the new rules, permitting the N.S.A. to disseminate 'raw signals intelligence information,' on Jan. 3, after the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., signed them on Dec. 15, according to a 23page, largely declassified copy of the procedures.
"Previously, the N.S.A. filtered information before sharing intercepted communications with another agency, like the C.I.A. or the intelligence branches of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The N.S.A.’s analysts passed on only information they deemed pertinent, screening out the identities of innocent people and irrelevant personal information. Now, other intelligence agencies will be able to search directly through raw repositories of communications intercepted by the N.S.A. and then apply such rules for 'minimizing' privacy intrusions."
It should be noted that Obama had deep antipathy for Flynn. As Fox News explains: "[Flynn's] military career ended when Obama dismissed him as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Flynn has said he was pushed out for holding tougher views than Obama about Islamic extremism."
February 14, 2017: On February 14, 2017, the Washington Free Beacon published an important piece explaining: (a) the roots of the Obama administration's antipathy for Flynn, and (b) the Obama administration's efforts to discredit and destroy Flynn:
The abrupt resignation Monday evening of White House national security adviser Michael Flynn is the culmination of a secret, months-long campaign by former Obama administration confidantes to handicap President Donald Trump's national security apparatus and preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, according to multiple sources in and out of the White House who described to the Washington Free Beacon a behind-the-scenes effort by these officials to plant a series of damaging stories about Flynn in the national media.
The effort, said to include former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes—the architect of a separate White House effort to create what he described as a pro-Iran echo chamber—included a small task force of Obama loyalists who deluged media outlets with stories aimed at eroding Flynn's credibility, multiple sources revealed.
The operation primarily focused on discrediting Flynn, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, in order to handicap the Trump administration's efforts to disclose secret details of the nuclear deal with Iran that had been long hidden by the Obama administration.
Insiders familiar with the anti-Flynn campaign told the Free Beacon that these Obama loyalists plotted in the months before Trump's inauguration to establish a set of roadblocks before Trump's national security team, which includes several prominent opponents of diplomacy with Iran. …
Sources who spoke to the Free Beacon requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the situation and avoid interfering with the White House's official narrative about Flynn, which centers on his failure to adequately inform the president about a series of phone calls with Russian officials.
Flynn took credit for his missteps regarding these phone calls in a brief statement released late Monday evening. Trump administration officials subsequently stated that Flynn's efforts to mislead the president and vice president about his contacts with Russia could not be tolerated.
However, multiple sources closely involved in the situation pointed to a larger, more secretive campaign aimed at discrediting Flynn and undermining the Trump White House.
"It's undeniable that the campaign to discredit Flynn was well underway before Inauguration Day, with a very troublesome and politicized series of leaks designed to undermine him," said one veteran national security adviser with close ties to the White House team. "This pattern reminds me of the lead up to the Iran deal, and probably features the same cast of characters."
The Free Beacon first reported in January that, until its final days in office, the Obama administration hosted several pro-Iran voices who were critical in helping to mislead the American public about the terms of the nuclear agreement. This included a former Iranian government official and the head of the National Iranian American Council, or NIAC, which has been accused of serving as Iran's mouthpiece in Washington, D.C.
Since then, top members of the Obama administration's national security team have launched a communications infrastructure after they left the White House, and have told reporters they are using that infrastructure to undermine Trump's foreign policy.
"It's actually Ben Rhodes, NIAC, and the Iranian mullahs who are celebrating today," said one veteran foreign policy insider who is close to Flynn and the White House. "They know that the number one target is Iran … [and] they all knew their little sacred agreement with Iran was going to go off the books. So they got rid of Flynn before any of the [secret] agreements even surfaced."
Flynn had been preparing to publicize many of the details about the nuclear deal that had been intentionally hidden by the Obama administration as part of its effort to garner support for the deal, these sources said.
Flynn is now "gone before anybody can see what happened" with these secret agreements, said the second insider close to Flynn and the White House. …
One senior White House official told the Free Beacon that leaks targeting the former official were "not the result of a series of random events."
"The drumbeat of leaks of sensitive material related to General Flynn has been building since he was named to his position," said the official, who is a member of the White House's National Security Council. "Last night was not the result of a series of random events. The president has lost a valuable adviser and we need to make sure this sort of thing does not happen again."
Other sources expressed concern that public trust in the intelligence community would be eroded by the actions of employees with anti-Trump agendas.
"The larger issue that should trouble the American people is the far-reaching power of unknown, unelected apparatchiks in the Intelligence Community deciding for themselves both who serves in government and what is an acceptable policy they will allow the elected representatives of the people to pursue," said the national security adviser quoted above.
"Put aside the issue of Flynn himself; that nameless, faceless bureaucrats were able to take out a president's national security adviser based on a campaign of innuendo without evidence should worry every American," the source explained.
Eli Lake, a Bloomberg View columnist and veteran national security reporter well sourced in the White House, told the Free Beacon that Flynn earned a reputation in the Obama administration as one of its top detractors.
"Michael Flynn was one of the Obama administration's fiercest critics after he was forced out of the Defense Intelligence Agency," said Lake, who described "the political assassination of Michael Flynn" in his column published early Tuesday.
"[Flynn] was a withering critic of Obama's biggest foreign policy initiative, the Iran deal," Lake said.
"He also publicly accused the administration of keeping classified documents found in the Osama bin Laden raid that showed Iran's close relationship with al Qaeda. He was a thorn in their side."
Lake noted in his column that he does not buy fully the White House's official spin on Flynn's resignation.