Surveillance: NSA Warrantless Wiretapping

On the Latest Intercept Story

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, October 13, 2014, 10:03 PM

You may not have read much about the latest big scoop in The Intercept, released Friday evening under the bylines of Peter Maass and Laura Poitras and headlined "Core Secrets: NSA Saboteurs in China and Germany." There have not been a lot of media organizations following the story. This might be due to the infelicitous timing of its release: the Friday before a long weekend is never a great time for a news break. There might also be a simple element of Snowden fatigue at work too.

I suspect the real reason, however, is that the story is a kind of extreme example of a type of piece into which many other Snowden stories over the past few months also fit. It's a type of story that would fit comfortably under a headline like "Spy Agency Spies on People in Fashion that Does Not Violate Law" or "NSA Does Exactly What You Would Imagine." Eventually this gets old---even for a press hyperventilating for tiny crumbs of the Snowden story. Eventually, apparently, is now.

The story opens: "The National Security Agency has had agents in China, Germany, and South Korea working on programs that use 'physical subversion' to infiltrate and compromise networks and devices, according to documents obtained by The Intercept."

Hmmmm. Let's think about that. The Intercept is breathlessly reporting that the NSA, a signals intelligence agency devoted to collecting foreign intelligence, has operatives in three foreign countries infiltrating networks and devices. Yeah, that sounds about right.

The story goes on: "The documents, leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, also indicate that the agency has used 'under cover' operatives to gain access to sensitive data and systems in the global communications industry, and that these secret agents may have even dealt with American firms."

There's a shocker: A clandestine spy agency has used "under cover" operatives to steal information. And those operatives may have "dealt with" American companies---whatever exactly that means. Imagine for a moment the converse story: that NSA has never used under cover operatives to gain access to sensitive data systems and never deals with American firms. Wouldn't be much of a spy agency, would it?

The meat of the piece is a series of documents that Maass and Poitras describe with a kind of intel porn reverence for program names and classification markings: "The documents describe a panoply of programs classified with the rare designation of 'Exceptionally Compartmented Information,' or ECI, which are only disclosed to a 'very select' number of government officials." But when Maass and Poitras describe what these documents contain, it's all stuff you already knew:

documents published today by The Intercept suggest that even as the agency uses secret operatives to penetrate them, companies have also cooperated more broadly to undermine the physical infrastructure of the internet than has been previously confirmed.

In addition to so-called “close access” operations, the NSA’s “core secrets” include the fact that the agency works with U.S. and foreign companies to weaken their encryption systems; the fact that the NSA spends “hundreds of millions of dollars” on technology to defeat commercial encryption; and the fact that the agency works with U.S. and foreign companies to penetrate computer networks, possibly without the knowledge of the host countries. Many of the NSA’s core secrets concern its relationships to domestic and foreign corporations.

The story is long. I'm sure the documents it reveals contain sensitive information. I'm equally sure, however, that I didn't learn much by reading the piece. That tells you something.