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Posted by on Jun 28, 2013 in Crime, Education, International, Law, Media, Military, Places, Politics, Science & Technology, Society, Terrorism, War | 25 comments

NSA Surveillance in Context


By all means, let us continue to debate the surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) to make sure that our privacy and civil liberties are not compromised, but let us not ignore the consequences of revealing some of our most sensitive national security information and let us also take a look at how the NSA activities and processes work in the context of our laws and national security and how they may have helped thwart terrorist plots.

Claudette Roulo at the American Forces Press Service provides the following insights.

Recent media leaks have caused “significant and irreversible damage” to U.S. security, the director of the National Security Agency said yesterday in Baltimore.

Public discussion of NSA’s tradecraft or the tools that support its operations provides insights that the nation’s adversaries can and do use, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander told an audience at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International Cyber Symposium.

“Those who wish us harm now know how we counter their actions,” Alexander said. “These leaks have caused significant and irreversible damage to our nation’s security.

“The damage is real,” he continued. “I believe the irresponsible release of classified information about these programs will have a long-term detrimental impact on the intelligence community’s ability to detect future attacks. These leaks have inflamed and sensationalized for ignoble purposes the work that the intelligence community does lawfully under strict oversight and compliance.”

Explaining the programs exposed by the leaks, the general said the 9/11 Commission found that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States succeeded because “the intelligence community could not connect the dots, foreign and domestic.”

To address that failing, Alexander said, the intelligence community set up and Congress authorized two programs. The first, Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act of 2001, allows the government to collect telephone metadata for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. The second, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the targeting, for foreign intelligence purposes, of communications of foreign persons who are located abroad.

Each program is subject to strict oversight procedures by all three branches of the government, Alexander said.

“We understand and support the need to ensure we protect both civil liberties and national security. It’s not one or the other. It must be both,” he said. “That’s why we take oversight of these programs very seriously.”

According to a June 2012 report issued by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, the general said, the committee did not find any cases of a government official willfully circumventing or violating the law while using the access granted under these authorities.

Under Section 215, telephone metadata is collected from service providers and placed into a “virtual lockbox,” the general explained. “The only way NSA can go into that lockbox is if we have what is called reasonable, articulable suspicion of a selector that is related to terrorism,” he said.

In 2012, NSA approved about 300 selectors, such as telephone numbers, to initiate queries into the virtual lockbox, Alexander said. For a request to be approved, he said, “there has to be a foreign nexus, an association with al-Qaida or other specified terrorist organizations.”

Alexander cited Operation High-Rise as an example of how this process works in practice.

The NSA used a Section 702 authorization to compel a service provider to turn over the emails of terrorists the agency was tracking in Pakistan, he said. Armed with that information, Alexander said, analysts found that an al-Qaida terrorist in Pakistan was emailing a person they believed to be in Colorado, and that information was then turned over to the FBI.

The man in Colorado turned out to be Najibullah Zazi, the general said. The FBI provided the NSA with Zazi’s phone number, which, combined with the email connection to the al-Qaida operative, provided reasonable, articulable suspicion for the NSA to access the virtual lockbox of telephone metadata, Alexander said.

“We looked in that lockbox, and we found that Zazi was talking to a guy in New York who had connections to other terrorist elements for another operation,” he said. The access allowed the NSA to connect Zazi to other potential terrorists as well, the general said.

“We got that information in early September 2009 for an attack that was supposed to take place in mid-September,” Alexander told the symposium audience. “It would have been the biggest al-Qaida attack on American soil since 9/11. We were privileged and honored to be a part of disrupting that plot. FAA 702 was the initial tip. That’s how important these programs are.”

In 2010, Zazi pleaded guilty to planning to conduct one of three coordinated suicide bombings on the New York City subway system during rush hour.

America’s allies have benefitted from the surveillance programs, as well, Alexander said.

Last week, he said, the NSA provided to Congress 54 cases “in which these programs contributed to our understanding and, in many cases, helped enable the disruption of terrorist plots in the U.S. and in over 20 countries throughout the world.”

Of the 54 cases, 42 involved disrupted plots, the general said. Twelve cases involved material support to terrorism, and 50 of the 54 led to arrests or detentions.

Forty-one cases involved targets outside the United States.

“Twenty-five of these events occurred in Europe, 11 in Asia, and five in Africa,” Alexander said. “Thirteen events had a homeland nexus. In 12 of those events, Section 215 contributed to our overall understanding and help to the FBI, 12 of the 13. That’s only where the business record FISA can play.”

In all but one of the cases the NSA provided to Congress, Section 702 data played a role or provided the initial tip, Alexander said. “A significant portion — almost half of our counterterrorism reporting — comes from Section 702,” he added.

The programs operate under a rigorous oversight framework, the general said. To target the content of a U.S. person’s communications anywhere in the world, FISA’s provisions require a finding of probable cause under a specific court order, he told the audience.

“These capabilities translate into significant information on ongoing terrorist activities, with no willful violations of our law,” he said. “I think that’s something to be proud of. We have defended the nation 54 times — and our allies — and we have ensured the protection of our civil liberties and privacy and oversight by … all three branches of our government. I think that’s what the nation expects our government to do: disrupt terrorist activities [and] defend our civil liberties and privacy.”

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  • SteveK

    Thank you Dorian for both this excellent article showing how and why the government gathers and uses information AND for your patience and good manners.

    A comparison of the ‘metadata‘ collected by U.S. intelligence services and the ‘each-and-every word data‘ being collected by social media sites (what they do with it once they collect it) would be an eye opener for many.

  • sheknows

    I am very sure the government does it’s best to prevent terrorist attacks. They have the most sophisticated technology and equipment available to do the job,
    but even the very best fisherman catch dolphins in their nets so they have employed safeguards for that utilizing new technology.

    Snowden is not the first to whistleblow on the NSA incidentally. He is the third in the last decade.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    I agree, Steve, that many of us give away a lot of our privacy (wittingly or “unwittingly”) through all these social networks and all kinds of other “commercial” data gathering/”surveillance” systems. Some may emphasize the “wittingly’ part of it, others the “innocent-seeming” nature of such “surveillance”systems and yet others point out the secretive and perhaps more intrusive and “evil” nature of the government’s surveillance — all good debate topics, in addition to being able to openly discuss/give our opinion on those who divulge secrets (“well-meaning” as some may claim they are) including, possibly, a four star general.!

    Wow, that was a long sentence… 🙂

    Thanks, Steve

  • The_Ohioan
  • ordinarysparrow

    TO followed your link and took the survey question:
    ” Do you believe these leaks harmed national security?”
    Interesting that it is exactly a 50 / 50 split. What i find interesting on this issue is the divide has not been as partisan as others. I wonder about the factors that lead ones to lean more towards privacy or security?

    Thanks Dorian….

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Hi OS:

    Your comment reminds me of an excellent piece written by E.J. Dionne Jr. a couple of weeks ago where he discusses this issue in a little more balanced and nuanced — and intellectual — way than the stark uncompromising “Give me freedom or give me death”-like approach such as “We have traded liberty for security,” or those “cowards who gladly trade in their liberties because their afwaid (sic) of the big, bad tewwowists. (sic)”

    In the piece, Dionne says:

    The hardest thing in an argument is to acknowledge competing truths. We know that our government will continue with large-scale surveillance programs to prevent future terrorist attacks. We also know that such programs have operated up to now with too little public scrutiny and insufficient concern over their long-term implications for our rights and our privacy.

    The response to Edward Snowden’s leaks about what our government has been up to should thus be a quest for a new and more sustainable balance among security, privacy and liberty. And the fact that some people in each of our political parties have switched sides on these questions is actually an opportunity. We can have a debate on the merits, liberated from the worst aspects of partisanship.

    And about surveys such as the one you mention:

    Of course we need a rule of law that applies no matter who is president. Still, these surveys reflect an intelligent ambivalence: We want to be safe and free. We realize in our gut that achieving both is a balancing act.

    We cannot give up on vigilance, but now is the time to lean more toward liberty. We also need to recognize that while trade-offs rarely inspire soaring rhetoric, they just happen to be necessary.

    In my humble opinion, this is the kind of debate and thinking that will find us “the right balance between security and liberty.”

  • sheknows

    “The hardest thing in an argument is to acknowledge competing truths”
    “In my humble opinion, this is the kind of debate and thinking that will find us the right balance between security and liberty”.
    Amen Thanks Dorian

  • “Classified” hides a lot of crimes, too. That is also part of the historical record. All committed when we were in the Cold War, a far scarier time than that which we live in now. And in many cases we are paying for those crimes.

    Do not so eagerly sacrifice liberty for security.

  • ordinarysparrow

    Thanks Dorian… so many shades with this one…..and / both …

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thank you, OS

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Good letter to the Editor in the Wapo on the security vs. freedom debate

    Colum Lynch’s June 26 front-page article, “In NSA leak, foes of U.S. see a chance to return fire,” noted that some countries are enjoying our embarrassment over Edward Snowden’s revelations. We are in this debate anyway now, so let’s welcome our comparison with any other country. The United States isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t pretend to be perfect. However, we are certainly well positioned to debate the proper balance of security and freedom with representatives from China, Russia, Venezuela and Ecuador, or any other country for that matter. It is a strength to take criticism and challenge the other party to do the same. We could all learn something from the process if each of us were up to the challenge.

  • ordinarysparrow

    Once again i would not of expected this opinion from Susan Rice …

    ” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice dismissed claims that Edward Snowden’s highly classified leaks have weakened the Obama presidency and damaged U.S. foreign policy, insisting that the United States will remain “the most influential, powerful and important country in the world.”

    ” Rice dismissed commentators who say Snowden’s disclosures have made Obama a lame duck, damaged his political base, and hurt U.S. foreign policy, saying: “I think that’s bunk.”

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, OS.

    She also said in the same interview:

    She said it’s too soon to judge whether there will be any long-term serious repercussions from the intelligence leaks by the former National Security Agency contractor who fled to Hong Kong and then Russia after seizing documents disclosing secret U.S. surveillance programs in the U.S. and overseas, which he has shared with The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers.

    And the same article also says:

    U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have called Snowden’s leaks a serious breach that damaged national security. Hagel said Thursday an assessment of the damage is being done now.

  • SteveK

    The United States isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t pretend to be perfect. However, we are certainly well positioned to debate the proper balance of security and freedom with representatives from China, Russia, Venezuela and Ecuador, or any other country for that matter.

    That pretty much says it all.

    Certainly the conversation should continue… And certainly we should all value our “Freedom from Intrusion.” Norman Rockwell, if he were with us today would have another commission.

    But, IMO, all our freedoms come from living in a safe (reasonably?) environment and like it or not security with controlled intrusion on our privacy is necessary to try to ensure a reasonably safe place for us all to live in.

    I’m sure glad that I live in the United States of America and have the right to piss-and-moan whenever I want.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    “I’m sure glad that I live in the United States of America and have the right to piss-and-moan whenever I want.”

    Amen, Steve –and the right to, in this dangerous new world, try to intelligently and honorably balance civil liberties with security without being labelled a “coward.”

  • KP

    I’m sure glad that I live in the United States of America and have the right to piss-and-moan whenever I want.

    And you exercise that right quite often 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

  • SteveK

    Thanks Dorian, thanks Kevin… It IS a small world after all.

    And I’m to old (young?) to worry about name calling. 🙂

  • petew

    The obvious thing we all fear is that with enough government intrusion, we will eventually live in an Orwellian society that values freedom and privacy very little and prefers only to defend itself from the smallest deviance or the smallest independent thought. But isn’t it also possible that sometimes we become alarmists who are willing to shoot at every snapping twig we hear around our campfire in the middle of the night?

    Of course as part of a Democracy, we have to monitor the government which monitors us, by using the 1st amendment and the rights of a free press. But to me, it is apparent that even this basic distrust in government, can be used to the advantage of those who want to create their own lies in order to discredit the Obama administration or whomever sits in the Oval Office.

    To truly be wary of Big Brother, we need to acknowledge that many politicians love to create scandals wherever possible to discredit those that are in power–such as the Obama Administration, which has, for whatever reason, been attacked criticized, and had its character assassinated regularly, from the moment the President first entered the 2008 elections.

    We know that data mining is something that has been done in the Bush administration extensively, and often with complete disregard for due process. So far at least, Obama’s people have at least, made gestures that indicate a willingness to be responsive to the public, and, provide further disclosure of what exactly the NSA does, and why it’s important to keep much of what it does in secrecy. I am not recommending giving this administration a free pass, but we should also be wary of overreacting with unnecessary fear and hysteria when making accusations.

    Back in the fifties, a corrupt and ambitious Senator, named Joe Mccarthy attempted to play off of our tendency to overreact and to accept any conspiracy theory which seems credible at the time—he ruined the lives of many Americans unnecessarily until confronted in public by Edward R. Murrow—a journalist who understood that sometimes unethical legislators will try to capitalize even on our public’s distrust of its leaders, by creating a negative narrative that seems believable. So, when big brother seeks to control the flow of information to the public–he can even work from within the government, and through opportunists who seek to distort information by naming the government as being our common enemy.

    We are now hearing reports that those caught in the IRS scandal, were not targeting only conservative groups but were also, sifting for words like, progressive, and occupy—simply because they might represent generally liberal groups which might want to defy the government. The IRS also engaged in data mining, but as it turns out, did not have nearly the sinister intent that conservatives were all too eager to pin on them.

    Among other things, Big brother counts on using our own prejudices against us, and, and at times will even try to introduce himself as an ally. When we overreact, we only increase his power.That’s why although government surveillance presents possible intrusions on our privacy, we have to be careful not to fear something which isn’t really there, except for our desire pin immediate blame on any possible or credible threat!

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    A lot of food for thought there, Petew.

  • DaGoat


    The obvious thing we all fear is that with enough government intrusion, we will eventually live in an Orwellian society that values freedom and privacy very little and prefers only to defend itself from the smallest deviance or the smallest independent thought.

    Well no, although I think this is the way people who are concerned about NSA overreach are portrayed sometimes. The US will not become 1984. Our constitution will prevent that along with our often dysfunctional politicians, who I have no doubt would step up if things got too bad.

    The frequent focus on Orwell and 1984 detracts from the question whether what the NSA is doing is constitutional, advisable, or right. Most people understand there has to be a balance between security and privacy. The people that do not support the NSA’s action do not necessarily fear 1984 (there are a few that do I’m sure) and the people that support the NSA do not want 1984.

    This article focuses mainly on whether the program has been effective. I don’t think was ever much question that it worked, the questions are can the same security needs be met in ways that don’t infringe on people’s privacy?

    I heard Keith Alexander on the Sunday AM shows last week and although he wears a uniform, the man’s a politician. He dodged questions and answered with his talking points. If I understand the report above correctly, he checked out his own program and found that he did a bang-up job. He may be right, but he should receive the same skepticism everyone in this issue should receive.

    Alexander said “Each program is subject to strict oversight procedures by all three branches of the government”. This is true, but part of the question is how well these branches are doing their job. The FISA court can’t seem to say no, and with a few exceptions you can say the same about Congress.

  • sheknows

    Thank you DaGoat. A very rational and unbiased view which addresses concerns on the other side of the argument as well.
    “this article focuses on whether the program has been effective. I don’t think was ever much question that it worked, the questions are can the same security needs be met in ways which don’t infringe on people’s privacy?”. Exactly my question and example with the dolphins.
    We had two individuals who already whistleblew because of that exact concern and resigned after 40 and >30 years of employment respectively with the NSA.
    Please read about William Binney and J Kirk Wiebe to understand how our government is not so careful with our privacy rights but COULD be, and would be if enforced properly.

  • petew

    Da Goat,

    I totally agree that not everyone who disagrees with the actions of the NSA does so out of fearing Big Brother. I also find it difficult to believe that in a government of checks and balances like ours, and a large amount of reverence for a free press, such a thing is very unlikely to happen. However, I was indeed, addressing my comments towards the fringe groups of people who hang on every conceivable conspiracy theory to justify their own fears. Among them, I’d have to say, that the more warlike members of the NRA and the propaganda spinners like Rush Limbaugh live in symbiotic dependence on each others lies. This type of mentality is no more feasible than the scandal rags at supermarket checkout And, yes, the true question is whether or not the program can function with a healthy degree of transparency. But many members of the radical right need to be reminded of reality,just in order to examine the issue with some degree of objectivity!

  • epiphyte

    Many thoughtful comments in this thread.

    I think that the most important thing is that everyone should have enough confidence in their own government to regard it as “Us” rather than “Them”. If that’s at all in doubt, something is seriously f..ked up.

    That’s it.

  • JSpencer

    Needless to say, the right balance between security and liberty is desirable to all of us. But who would attempt to define that”balance” when they don’t know how the scales are weighted? The truth is that most citizens have no grasp of what their government is doing covertly and so they grant their trust. Trust is utterly necessary in any relationship but when reasonable questions have been raised about that trust it makes sense to look at the basis for which it is being placed. Like others here I’m glad to be an American and I love my country, but it would be foolish for anyone to love their country unconditionally, in fact it’s irresponsible. Confidence has to be earned, not assumed, and this is an ongoing process. If our list of failures (and failures of leadership) wasn’t so long perhaps I too could be more glib and carefree about the subject.

  • sheknows

    The NSA has had many opportunities and a lot of time to correct it’s mistakes regarding collection of this meta data. It has been called on the carpet before , for the very same reason, overstepping it’s boundaries and invading the rights of people. Apparently, it doesn’t care about following laws or preserving rights. Rather, it has decided to build a million sq. ft. facility to house all the data it is collecting.
    It looks like no one really WANTS to mind the store and the NSA has carte blanche with our liberties.

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