It spies on friends and foes; the agencys official mission list includes using its surveillance powers to achieve diplomatic advantage over allies France and Germany and economic advantage over Japan and Brazil
When Ban Ki-moon,the UN Secretary-General,sat down with President Barack Obama at the White House in April to discuss Syrian chemical weapons,Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and climate change,it was a cordial,routine exchange.
The National Security Agency nonetheless went to work in advance and intercepted Bans talking points for the meeting,a feat the agency later reported as an operational highlight in a weekly internal brag sheet. It is hard to imagine what edge this could have given Obama in a friendly chat,if he even saw the NSAs modest scoop. But it was emblematic of an agency that for decades has operated on the principle that any eavesdropping that can be done on a foreign target of any conceivable interest now or in the future should be done. After all,American intelligence officials reasoned,whos going to find out?
From thousands of classified documents,the NSA emerges as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities,eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets,all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations. It spies routinely on friends as well as foes,as has become obvious in recent weeks; the agencys official mission list includes using its surveillance powers to achieve diplomatic advantage over such allies as France and Germany and economic advantage over Japan and Brazil,among other countries.
Obama found himself in September standing uncomfortably beside the President of Brazil,Dilma Rousseff,who was furious at being named as a target of NSA eavesdropping. Since then,there has been a parade of such protests,from the European Union,Mexico,France,Germany and Spain.
James R Clapper Jr,the director of national intelligence,has repeatedly dismissed such objections as brazen hypocrisy from countries that do their own share of spying. But in a recent interview,he acknowledged that the scale of eavesdropping by the NSA,with 35,000 workers and $10.8 billion a year,sets it apart.
Since Edward J Snowden began releasing the agencys documents in June,the unrelenting stream of disclosures has opened the most extended debate on the agencys mission since its creation in 1952. The scrutiny has ignited a crisis of purpose and legitimacy for the NSA,the nations largest intelligence agency,and the White House has ordered a review of both its domestic and foreign intelligence collection. While much of the focus has been on whether the agency violates Americans privacy,an issue under examination by review panels,the anger expressed around the world about American surveillance has prompted far broader questions. If secrecy can no longer be taken for granted,when does the political risk of eavesdropping overseas outweigh its intelligence benefits? Should foreign citizens,many of whom now rely on American companies for email and Internet services,have any privacy protections from the NSA?
A review of classified agency documents,obtained by Snowden and shared with The New York Times by The Guardian,offers a rich sampling of the agencys global operations and culture. The NSA seems to be listening everywhere in the world,gathering every stray electron that might add,however minutely,to the US governments knowledge of the world. Obama and top intelligence officials have defended the agencys role in preventing terrorist attacks. But as the documents make clear,the focus on counter-terrorism is a misleadingly narrow sales pitch for an agency with an unlimited agenda.
Its scale and aggressiveness are breathtaking. The agencys Dishfire database stores years of text messages from around the world,just in case. Its Tracfin collection accumulates gigabytes of credit card purchases. By many accounts,the agency provides more than half of intelligence nuggets delivered to the White House each morning in the Presidents Daily Brief a measure of success for American spies.
For decades,the NSA has shared eavesdropping duties with the rest of the so-called Five Eyes,the Sigint agencies of Britain,Canada,Australia and New Zealand. More limited cooperation occurs with many more countries,including formal arrangements called Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes and Nacsi,an alliance of the agencies of 26 NATO countries.
Today,with personal computers,laptops,tablets and smartphones in most homes and government offices in the developed world,hacking has become the agencys growth area. Joel F Brenner,the agencys former inspector general,says much of the criticism is unfair. But Brenner added that he believes technology has outrun policy at the NSA,and that in an era in which spying may well be exposed,routine targeting of close allies is bad politics and is foolish.