Still More Noise Than Signal, As U.S. Spies Promise More Transparency

If you want more detail on the various National Security Agency surveillance programs there's plenty out there, but clarity from the government is in short supply.

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General Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and chief of the Central Security Service (CSS), arrives at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington June 12, 2013.

Transparency is the new hot thing in American spycraft, say U.S. spies. “We are trying to be transparent,” promises Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA). “The American people deserve to understand what we are doing,” announced an unsigned white paper released by the Director of National Intelligence over the weekend.

Yet as we approach the second week mark since documents leaked by Edward Snowden’s first made it into the mainstream press, it remains difficult to separate the signal from the noise. The testimonies of public officials remain opaque and at times contradictory. The reporting on the story is still not definitive. And new revelations raise more questions than they answer.

This weekend saw three large information dumps on the scope and specifics of the U.S. signals intelligence apparatus—one from the Associated Press, one from the Washington Post, and one from the intelligence community itself, which is still struggling to regain credibility for its previous public statements that appear to contradict the Snowden disclosures. The flood of information was further added to by a distracting online controversy about the alleged—and since denied—contents of a classified briefing to lawmakers last week.

The intelligence community dump is the simplest to digest, though the story it tells is almost certainly incomplete.  It discusses the two programs that Snowden revealed: a massive data collection program for phone record “metadata” in the United States, and a narrower program for collecting digital records from foreign targets through U.S. Internet companies. According to the spooks, both programs have been effective, disrupting “dozens of potential terrorist plots here in the homeland and in more than 20 countries around the world.” The 20 countries are not named, and the impact is specifically described for only one plot, the 2009 attempt by Najibullah Zazi to blow up New York subways. (The Associated Press, citing mostly public records, has argued separately that Zazi probably could have been caught without the classified programs.) The document also reveals that in 2012, less than 300 “unique identifiers” were searched in the historical metadata phone records, though those searches no doubt showed connections to many more phone numbers.

(MORE: ‘Stop Watching Us’ Plans Next Move Against NSA)

The Associated Press published another story on Saturday shedding more light on a third facet of the U.S. electronic surveillance architecture. Since 2006, when a whistleblower from AT&T came forward, there has been reason to believe that the NSA has the ability to directly tap into digital information flows from fiber-optic cables that pass through U.S. territory. These efforts generally target foreigners, but can catch up large amounts of information on U.S. targets. “[F]ormer U.S. officials familiar with the process say it allows the government to keep the information as long as it is labeled as belonging to an American and stored in a special, restricted part of a computer,” the Associated Press story reports. What is unclear is how much of this information from the pipelines of the Internet is archived, allowing for searches through the past, and how extensive the foreign collection is. The story ends with an analyst saying that it is safe to assume the government “collects everything” and that “no one is telling the truth.”

If this was not confusing enough, the Washington Post stepped into the breach, having acquired a classified history of the surveillance programs from the NSA’s inspector general. This history says there are in fact four programs at play here: A “metadata” collection program for telephone records, which Snowden revealed; a separate “metadata” program for the Internet; a system for intercepting the content of phone conversations in a targeted fashion called “NUCLEON”; and a program for intercepting the content of Internet messages, which the Post suggests is the same as the program revealed by Snowden. To complicate things further, an unnamed source in the story says the collection of Internet metadata is no longer happening, maybe. “I’m not going to say we’re not collecting any Internet metadata,” he added. “We’re not using this program and these kinds of accesses to collect Internet metadata in bulk.” Good luck figuring out what that means.

And while all this was going on, the more partisan and conspiratorial parts of the Internet erupted in speculation about a report, based on a snippet of public testimony by a New York Congressman, Jerrold Nadler, that analysts are regularly listening to domestic phone calls. This claim has since been retracted by Nadler, and denied directly by the Director of National Intelligence, though that did not stop partisans from claiming that news organizations were covering up the information from a public hearing because of a partisan affinity for Barack Obama, who said last week, “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.” (For more on what is really going on in this regard, Marc Ambinder has an explainer here.)

To sum up, transparency is not something the nation’s intelligence establishment does well. Nearly two weeks after this story broke, America’s spy chiefs are still struggling to get control of the narrative, attempting fitfully to correct misinformation, and remaining silent on significant portions of the public reporting by major news organizations.

On CBS, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said President Obama plans to address these issues further in the coming days. “The president welcomes a public debate on these questions, because he does say — and he will say again in the days ahead — that we have to find the right balance,” McDonough said.

More debate, maybe. But clarity? Don’t have high hopes.

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