No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming N.S.A.

When Ban
Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, sat down with
President Obama at the White House in April to discuss
Syrian chemical weapons, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and
climate change, it was a cordial, routine

The National Security Agency
nonetheless went to work in advance and intercepted Mr. Ban’s
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 Mr. Obama in a
friendly chat, if he even saw the N.S.A.’s modest scoop. (The White
House won’t say.)  

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, who’s
going to find out? 

From thousands
of classified documents, the National Security Agency 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
agency’s 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. 

Mr. Obama found
himself in September standing uncomfortably beside the president of
Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who was furious at being named as a target
of N.S.A. eavesdropping. Since then, there has been a parade of
such protests, from the European Union, Mexico, France, Germany and
Spain. Chagrined American officials joke that soon there will be
complaints from foreign leaders feeling slighted because the agency
had not targeted them. 

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 N.S.A., with
35,000 workers and $10.8 billion a year, sets it apart. “There’s no
question that from a capability standpoint we probably dwarf
everybody on the planet, just about, with perhaps the exception of
Russia and China,” he said.  

Since Edward J.
Snowden began releasing
the agency’s documents in June, the unrelenting stream of
disclosures has opened the most extended debate on the agency’s
mission since its creation in 1952. The scrutiny has ignited a
crisis of purpose and legitimacy for the N.S.A., the nation’s
largest intelligence agency, and the White House has ordered a
review of both its domestic and its foreign intelligence
collection. While much of the focus has been on whether the agency
violates Americans’ privacy, an issue under examination by Congress
and two 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 N.S.A.? Will the
American Internet giants’ collaboration with the agency, voluntary
or otherwise, damage them in international markets? And are the
agency’s clandestine efforts to weaken encryption making the
Internet less secure for everyone?

Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence
historian and author of a 2009 book on the N.S.A., said there is no
precedent for the hostile questions coming at the agency from all

“From N.S.A.’s point of view, it’s a
disaster,” Mr. Aid said. “Every new disclosure reinforces the
notion that the agency needs to be reined in. There are political
consequences, and there will be operational

A review of
classified agency documents obtained by Mr. Snowden and shared with
The New York Times by The
, offers a rich sampling of the agency’s global
operations and culture. (At the agency’s request, The Times is
withholding some details that officials said could compromise
intelligence operations.) The N.S.A. seems to be listening
everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might
add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge
of the world. To some Americans, that may be a comfort. To others,
and to people overseas, that may suggest an agency out of

The C.I.A. dispatches undercover
officers overseas to gather intelligence today roughly the same way
spies operated in biblical times. But the N.S.A., born when the
long-distance call was a bit exotic, has seen its potential targets
explode in number with the advent of personal computers, the
Internet and cellphones. Today’s N.S.A. is the Amazon of
intelligence agencies, as different from the 1950s agency as that
online behemoth is from a mom-and-pop bookstore. It sucks the
contents from fiber-optic cables, sits on telephone switches and
Internet hubs, digitally burglarizes laptops and plants bugs on
smartphones around the globe. 

Mr. Obama and
top intelligence officials have defended the agency’s role in
preventing terrorist attacks. But as the documents make clear, the
focus on counterterrorism is a misleadingly narrow sales pitch for
an agency with an almost unlimited agenda. Its scale and
aggressiveness are breathtaking. 

The agency’s
Dishfire database — nothing happens without a code word at the
N.S.A. — stores years of text messages from around the world, just
in case. Its Tracfin collection accumulates gigabytes of credit
card purchases. The fellow pretending to send a text message at an
Internet cafe in Jordan may be using an N.S.A. technique code-named
Polarbreeze to tap into nearby computers. The Russian businessman
who is socially active on the web might just become food for
Snacks, the acronym-mad agency’s Social Network Analysis
Collaboration Knowledge Services, which figures out the personnel
hierarchies of organizations from texts.

The spy agency’s station in Texas
intercepted 478 emails while helping to foil a jihadist plot to
kill a Swedish artist who had drawn pictures of the Prophet
Muhammad. N.S.A. analysts delivered to authorities at Kennedy
International Airport the names and flight numbers of workers
dispatched by a Chinese human smuggling

The agency’s eavesdropping gear, aboard
a Defense Department plane flying 60,000 feet over Colombia, fed
the location and plans of FARC rebels to the Colombian Army. In the
Orlandocard operation, N.S.A. technicians set up what they called a
“honeypot” computer on the web that attracted visits from 77,413
foreign computers and planted spyware on more than 1,000 that the
agency deemed of potential future

 The Global Phone Book

No investment seems too great if it
adds to the agency’s global phone book. After mounting a major
eavesdropping effort focused on a climate change conference in Bali
in 2007, agency analysts stationed in Australia’s outback were
especially thrilled by one catch: the cellphone number of Bali’s
police chief. 

“Our mission,” says the agency’s
current five-year plan, which has not been officially scheduled for
declassification until 2032, “is to answer questions about
threatening activities that others mean to keep hidden.”

The aspirations are grandiose: to
“utterly master” foreign intelligence carried on communications
networks. The language is corporate: “Our business processes need
to promote data-driven decision-making.” But the tone is also
strikingly moralistic for a government bureaucracy. Perhaps to
counter any notion that eavesdropping is a shady enterprise,
signals intelligence, or Sigint, the term of art for electronic
intercepts, is presented as the noblest of

“Sigint professionals must hold the
moral high ground, even as terrorists or dictators seek to exploit
our freedoms,” the plan declares. “Some of our adversaries will say
or do anything to advance their cause; we will

The N.S.A. documents taken by Mr.
Snowden and shared with The Times, numbering in the thousands and
mostly dating from 2007 to 2012, are part of a collection of about
50,000 items that focus mainly on its British counterpart,
Government Communications Headquarters or G.C.H.Q.

While far from comprehensive, the
documents give a sense of the agency’s reach and abilities, from
the Navy ships snapping up radio transmissions as they cruise off
the coast of China, to the satellite dishes at Fort Meade in
Maryland ingesting worldwide banking transactions, to the rooftops
of 80 American embassies and consulates around the world from which
the agency’s Special Collection Service aims its

The agency and its many defenders among
senior government officials who have relied on its top secret
reports say it is crucial to American security and status in the
world, pointing to terrorist plots disrupted, nuclear proliferation
tracked and diplomats kept informed.

But the documents released by Mr.
Snowden sometimes also seem to underscore the limits of what even
the most intensive intelligence collection can achieve by itself.
Blanket N.S.A. eavesdropping in Afghanistan, described in the
documents as covering government offices and the hide-outs of
second-tier Taliban militants alike, has failed to produce a clear
victory against a low-tech enemy. The agency kept track as Syria
amassed its arsenal of chemical weapons — but that knowledge did
nothing to prevent the gruesome slaughter outside Damascus in

The documents are skewed toward
celebration of the agency’s self-described successes, as underlings
brag in PowerPoints to their bosses about their triumphs and the
managers lay out grand plans. But they do not entirely omit the
agency’s flubs and foibles: flood tides of intelligence gathered at
huge cost that goes unexamined; intercepts that cannot be read for
lack of language skills; and computers that — even at the N.S.A. —
go haywire in all the usual ways. 

 Mapping Message Trails

In May 2009, analysts at the agency
learned that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was to
make a rare trip to Kurdistan Province in the country’s mountainous
northwest. The agency immediately organized a high-tech espionage
mission, part of a continuing project focused on Ayatollah Khamenei
called Operation Dreadnought. 

Working closely
with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles
satellite photography, as well as G.C.H.Q., the N.S.A. team studied
the Iranian leader’s entourage, its vehicles and its weaponry from
satellites, and intercepted air traffic messages as planes and
helicopters took off and landed.  

They heard
Ayatollah Khamenei’s aides fretting about finding a crane to load
an ambulance and fire truck onto trucks for the journey. They
listened as he addressed a crowd, segregated by gender, in a soccer

They studied Iranian air defense radar
stations and recorded the travelers’ rich communications trail,
including Iranian satellite coordinates collected by an N.S.A.
program called Ghosthunter. The point was not so much to catch the
Iranian leader’s words, but to gather the data for blanket
eavesdropping on Iran in the event of a crisis.

This “communications fingerprinting,”
as a document called it, is the key to what the N.S.A. does. It
allows the agency’s computers to scan the stream of international
communications and pluck out messages tied to the supreme leader.
In a crisis — say, a showdown over Iran’s nuclear program — the
ability to tap into the communications of leaders, generals and
scientists might give a crucial

On a more modest scale, the same kind
of effort, what N.S.A. calls “Sigint development,” was captured in
a document the agency obtained in 2009 from Somalia — whether from
a human source or an electronic break-in was not noted. It
contained email addresses and other contact details for 117
selected customers of a Mogadishu Internet service, Globalsom.

While most on the list were Somali
officials or citizens, presumably including some suspected of
militancy, the document also included emails for a United Nations
political officer in Mogadishu and a local representative for the
charity World Vision, among other international institutions. All,
it appeared, were considered fair game for

This huge investment in collection is
driven by pressure from the agency’s “customers,” in government
jargon, not only at the White House, Pentagon, F.B.I. and C.I.A.,
but also spread across the Departments of State and Energy,
Homeland Security and Commerce, and the United States Trade

By many
accounts, the agency provides more than half of the intelligence
nuggets delivered to the White House early each morning in the
President’s Daily Brief — a measure of success for American spies.
(One document boasts that listening in on Nigerian State Security
had provided items for the briefing “nearly two dozen” times.) In
every international crisis, American policy makers look to the
N.S.A. for inside information. 

 Pressure to Get Everything

That creates intense pressure not to
miss anything. When that is combined with an ample budget and
near-invisibility to the public, the result is aggressive
surveillance of the kind that has sometimes gotten the agency in
trouble with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a United
States federal court that polices its programs for breaches of
Americans’ privacy. 

In the funding
boom that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency expanded and
decentralized far beyond its Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland,
building or expanding major facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado,
Hawaii, Alaska, Washington State and Utah. Its officers also
operate out of major overseas stations in England, Australia, South
Korea and Japan, at overseas military bases, and from locked rooms
housing the Special Collection Service inside American missions

The agency, using a combination of
jawboning, stealth and legal force, has turned the nation’s
Internet and telecommunications companies into collection partners,
installing filters in their facilities, serving them with court
orders, building back doors into their software and acquiring keys
to break their encryption. 

But even that
vast American-run web is only part of the story. For decades, the
N.S.A. 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

The extent of Sigint sharing can be
surprising: “N.S.A. may pursue a relationship with Vietnam,” one
2009 G.C.H.Q. document reported. But a recent G.C.H.Q. training
document suggests that not everything is shared, even between the
United States and Britain. “Economic well-being reporting,” it
says, referring to intelligence gathered to aid the British
economy, “cannot be shared with any foreign

As at the school lunch table, decisions
on who gets left out can cause hurt feelings: “Germans were a
little grumpy at not being invited to join the 9-Eyes group,” one
2009 document remarks. And in a delicate spy-versus-spy dance,
sharing takes place even with governments that are themselves
important N.S.A. targets, notably Israel.

The documents describe collaboration
with the Israel Sigint National Unit, which gets raw N.S.A.
eavesdropping material and provides it in return, but they also
mention the agency’s tracking of “high priority Israeli military
targets,” including drone aircraft and the Black Sparrow missile

The alliances, and the need for
stealth, can get complicated. At one highly valued overseas
listening post, the very presence of American N.S.A. personnel
violates a treaty agreed to by the agency’s foreign host. Even
though much of the eavesdropping is run remotely from N.S.A.’s base
at Fort Gordon, Ga., Americans who visit the site must pose as
contractors, carry fake business cards and are warned: “Don’t dress
as typical Americans.” 

“Know your
cover legend,” a PowerPoint security briefing admonishes the N.S.A.
staff members headed to the overseas station, directing them to
“sanitize personal effects,” send no postcards home and buy no
identifiably local souvenirs. (“An option might be jewelry. Most
jewelry does not have any markings” showing its place of

 Bypassing Security

In the agency’s early years, its brainy
staff members — it remains the largest employer of mathematicians
in the country — played an important role in the development of the
first computers, then largely a tool for code

Today, with personal computers,
laptops, tablets and smartphones in most homes and government
offices in the developed world, hacking has become the agency’s
growth area. 

Some of Mr. Snowden’s documents
describe the exploits of Tailored Access Operations, the prim name
for the N.S.A. division that breaks into computers around the world
to steal the data inside, and sometimes to leave spy software
behind. T.A.O. is increasingly important in part because it allows
the agency to bypass encryption by capturing messages as they are
written or read, when they are not

In Baghdad, T.A.O. collected messages
left in draft form in email accounts maintained by leaders of the
Islamic State of Iraq, a militant group. Under a program called
Spinaltap, the division’s hackers identified 24 unique Internet
Protocol addresses identifying computers used by the Lebanese
militant group Hezbollah, making it possible to snatch Hezbollah
messages from the flood of global communications sifted by the

The N.S.A.’s elite Transgression
Branch, created in 2009 to “discover, understand, evaluate and
exploit” foreign hackers’ work, quietly piggybacks on others’
incursions into computers of interest, like thieves who follow
other housebreakers around and go through the windows they have
left ajar. 

In one 2010 hacking operation
code-named Ironavenger, for instance, the N.S.A. spied
simultaneously on an ally and an adversary. Analysts spotted
suspicious emails being sent to a government office of great
intelligence interest in a hostile country and realized that an
American ally was “spear-phishing” — sending official-looking
emails that, when opened, planted malware that let hackers

The Americans silently followed the
foreign hackers, collecting documents and passwords from computers
in the hostile country, an elusive target. They got a look inside
that government and simultaneously got a close-up look at the
ally’s cyberskills, the kind of intelligence twofer that is the
unit’s specialty.  

In many other
ways, advances in computer and communications technology have been
a boon for the agency. N.S.A. analysts tracked the electronic trail
left by a top leader of Al Qaeda in Africa each time he stopped to
use a computer on his travels. They correctly predicted his next
stop, and the police were there to arrest

And at the big N.S.A. station at Fort
Gordon, technicians developed an automated service called “Where’s
My Node?” that sent an email to an analyst every time a target
overseas moved from one cell tower to another. Without lifting a
finger, an analyst could follow his quarry’s every

 The Limits of Spying

The techniques described in the Snowden
documents can make the N.S.A. seem omniscient, and nowhere in the
world is that impression stronger than in Afghanistan. But the
agency’s capabilities at the tactical level have not been nearly
enough to produce clear-cut strategic success there, in the United
States’ longest war. 

A single daily
report from June 2011 from the N.S.A.’s station in Kandahar,
Afghanistan, the heart of Taliban country, illustrates the
intensity of eavesdropping coverage, requiring 15 pages to describe
a day’s work. 

The agency listened while insurgents
from the Haqqani network mounted an attack on the Hotel
Intercontinental in Kabul, overhearing the attackers talking to
their bosses in Pakistan’s tribal area and recording events minute
by minute. “Ruhullah claimed he was on the third floor and had
already inflicted one casualty,” the report said in a typical
entry. “He also indicated that Hafiz was located on a different

N.S.A. officers listened as two Afghan
Foreign Ministry officials prepared for a meeting between President
Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Iranian officials, assuring them
that relations with the United States “would in no way threaten the
interests of Iran,” which they decided Mr. Karzai should describe
as a “brotherly country.”  

The N.S.A.
eavesdropped as the top United Nations official in Afghanistan,
Staffan de Mistura, consulted his European Union counterpart,
Vygaudas Usackas, about how to respond to an Afghan court’s
decision to overturn the election of 62 members of Parliament.

And the agency was a fly on the wall
for a long-running land dispute between the mayor of Kandahar and a
prominent local man known as the Keeper of the Cloak of the Prophet
Muhammad, with President Karzai’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai,
as a mediator. 

The agency
discovered a Taliban claim to have killed five police officers at a
checkpoint by giving them poisoned yogurt, and heard a provincial
governor tell an aide that a district police chief was verbally
abusing women and clergymen.  

A Taliban
figure, Mullah Rahimullah Akhund, known on the United States
military’s kill-or-capture list by the code name Objective Squiz
Incinerator, was overheard instructing an associate to buy suicide
vests and a Japanese motorbike, according to the documents.

And N.S.A. listened in as a Saudi
extremist, Abu Mughira, called his mother to report that he and his
fellow fighters had entered Afghanistan and “done victorious

Such reports flowed from the agency’s
Kandahar station day after day, year after year, and surely
strengthened the American campaign against the Taliban. But they
also suggest the limits of intelligence against a complex political
and military challenge. The N.S.A. recorded the hotel attack, but
it had not prevented it. It tracked Mr. Karzai’s government, but he
remained a difficult and volatile partner. Its surveillance was
crucial in the capture or killing of many enemy fighters, but not
nearly enough to remove the Taliban’s ominous shadow from
Afghanistan’s future.  

 Mining All the Tidbits

In the Afghan reports and many others,
a striking paradox is the odd intimacy of a sprawling,
technology-driven agency with its targets. It is the one-way
intimacy of the eavesdropper, as N.S.A. employees virtually enter
the office cubicles of obscure government officials and the Spartan
hide-outs of drug traffickers and militants around the

Venezuela, for instance, was one of six
“enduring targets” in N.S.A.’s official mission list from 2007,
along with China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Russia. The United
States viewed itself in a contest for influence in Latin America
with Venezuela’s leader then, the leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez,
who allied himself with Cuba, and one agency goal was “preventing
Venezuela from achieving its regional leadership objectives and
pursuing policies that negatively impact U.S. global interests.”

A glimpse of what this meant in
practice comes in a brief PowerPoint presentation from August 2010
on “Development of the Venezuelan Economic Mission.” The N.S.A. was
tracking billions of dollars flowing to Caracas in loans from China
(radar systems and oil drilling), Russia (MIG fighter planes and
shoulder-fired missiles) and Iran (a factory to manufacture drone

But it was also getting up-close and
personal with Venezuela’s Ministry of Planning and Finance,
monitoring the government and personal emails of the top 10
Venezuelan economic officials. An N.S.A. officer in Texas, in other
words, was paid each day to peruse the private messages of obscure
Venezuelan bureaucrats, hunting for tidbits that might offer some
tiny policy edge. 

In a
counterdrug operation in late 2011, the agency’s officers seemed to
know more about relations within a sprawling narcotics network than
the drug dealers themselves. They listened to “Ricketts,” a
Jamaican drug supplier based in Ecuador, struggling to keep his
cocaine and marijuana smuggling business going after an associate,
“Gordo,” claimed he had paid $250,000 and received nothing in

The N.S.A., a report said, was on top
of not just their cellphones, but also those of the whole network
of “buyers, transporters, suppliers, and middlemen” stretching from
the Netherlands and Nova Scotia to Panama City and Bogotá,
Colombia. The documents do not say whether arrests resulted from
all that eavesdropping.  

Even with
terrorists, N.S.A. units can form a strangely personal
relationship. The N.S.A.-G.C.H.Q. wiki, a top secret group blog
that Mr. Snowden downloaded, lists 14 specialists scattered in
various stations assigned to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani
terrorist group that carried out the bloody attack on Mumbai in
2008, with titles including “Pakistan Access Pursuit Team” and
“Techniques Discovery Branch.” Under the code name Treaclebeta,
N.S.A.’s hackers at Tailored Access Operations also played a

In the wiki’s casual atmosphere,
American and British eavesdroppers exchange the peculiar shoptalk
of the secret world. “I don’t normally use Heretic to scan the fax
traffic, I use Nucleon,” one user writes, describing technical
tools for searching intercepted documents.

But most striking are the one-on-one
pairings of spies and militants; Bryan is assigned to listen in on
a man named Haroon, and Paul keeps an ear on

 A Flood of Details

One N.S.A. officer on the
Lashkar-e-Taiba beat let slip that some of his eavesdropping turned
out to be largely pointless, perhaps because of the agency’s
chronic shortage of skilled linguists. He “ran some queries” to
read intercepted communications of certain Lashkar-e-Taiba members,
he wrote in the wiki, but added: “Most of it is in Arabic or Farsi,
so I can’t make much of it.” 

It is a glimpse
of the unsurprising fact that sometimes the agency’s expensive and
expansive efforts accomplish little. Despite the agency’s embrace
of corporate jargon on goal-setting and evaluation, it operates
without public oversight in an arena in which achievements are hard
to measure. 

In a world of ballooning
communications, the agency is sometimes simply overwhelmed. In
2008, the N.S.A.’s Middle East and North Africa group set about
updating its Sigint collection capabilities. The “ambitious scrub”
of selectors — essentially search terms — cut the number of terms
automatically searched from 21,177 to 7,795 and the number of
messages added to the agency’s Pinwale database from 850,000 a day
to 450,000 a day. 

The reduction
in volume was treated as a major achievement, opening the way for
new collection on Iranian leadership and Saudi and Syrian
diplomats, the report said. 

And in a note
that may comfort computer novices, the N.S.A. Middle East analysts
discovered major glitches in their search software: The computer
was searching for the names of targets but not their email
addresses, a rather fundamental flaw. “Over 500 messages in one
week did not come in,” the report said about one

Those are daily course corrections.
Whether the Snowden disclosures will result in deeper change is
uncertain. Joel F. Brenner, the agency’s former inspector general,
says much of the criticism is unfair, reflecting a naïveté about
the realpolitik of spying. “The agency is being browbeaten for
doing too well the things it’s supposed to do,” he

But Mr. Brenner added that he believes
“technology has outrun policy” at the N.S.A., and that in an era in
which spying may well be exposed, “routine targeting of close
allies is bad politics and is

Another former insider worries less
about foreign leaders’ sensitivities than the potential danger the
sprawling agency poses at home. William E. Binney, a former senior
N.S.A. official who has become an outspoken critic, says he has no
problem with spying on foreign targets like Brazil’s president or
the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. “That’s pretty much what
every government does,” he said. “It’s the foundation of
diplomacy.” But Mr. Binney said that without new leadership, new
laws and top-to-bottom reform, the agency will represent a threat
of “turnkey totalitarianism” — the capability to turn its awesome
power, now directed mainly against other countries, on the American

“I think it’s already starting to
happen,” he said. “That’s what we have to

Whatever reforms may come, Bobby R.
Inman, who weathered his own turbulent period as N.S.A. director
from 1977 to 1981, offers his hyper-secret former agency a radical
suggestion for right now. “My advice would be to take everything
you think Snowden has and get it out yourself,” he said. “It would
certainly be a shock to the agency. But bad news doesn’t get better
with age. The sooner they get it out and put it behind them, the
faster they can begin to

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