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When Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. 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 exchange.

The National Security Agency (NSA) nonetheless went to work in advance and intercepted 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 Obama in a friendly chat, if he even saw the NSA’s modest scoop. (Obama administration officials 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 should be done. After all, U.S. intelligence officials reasoned, who’s 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 while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.

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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.

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. Chagrined U.S. officials joke that soon there will be complaints from foreign leaders feeling slighted because the agency had not targeted them.

James Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, has dismissed such objections as 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 budget, 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 former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began releasing the agency’s documents in June, the 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 NSA, the nation’s largest intelligence agency, and the administration has ordered a review of 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 Congress and two review panels, the anger expressed around the world about U.S. surveillance has prompted far broader questions.

Agency’s culture

When does the political risk of eavesdropping overseas outweigh its intelligence benefits? Should foreign citizens, many of whom rely on U.S. companies for email and Internet services, have any privacy protections from the NSA? Will U.S. Internet companies’ collaboration with the agency, voluntary or otherwise, damage them in international markets? Are the agency’s clandestine efforts to weaken encryption making the Internet less secure for everyone?

Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and author of a book on the NSA, said there is no precedent for the hostile questions coming at the agency from all directions.

“From NSA’s point of view, it’s a disaster,” Aid said. “Every new disclosure reinforces the notion that the agency needs to be reined in.”

A review of classified agency documents, obtained by Snowden and shared with The New York Times by The Guardian newspaper, offers a sample of the agency’s global operations and culture. (Some details NSA officials said could compromise operations are being withheld.) The NSA seems to be listening everywhere, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the U.S. 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 control.

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 NSA — 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 at an Internet cafe in Jordan may be using an NSA technique code-named Polarbreeze to tap into nearby computers.

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. NSA analysts delivered to authorities at Kennedy International Airport the names and flight numbers of workers dispatched by a Chinese human-smuggling ring.

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.

The agency’s aspirations are grandiose: to “utterly master” foreign intelligence carried on communications networks. 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 callings.

“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 not.”

British counterpart

The NSA documents taken by Snowden and shared with The New York 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 GCHQ.

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 ingesting worldwide banking transactions, to the rooftops of 80 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world from which the agency’s Special Collection Service aims its antennas.

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

But the documents released by Snowden sometimes also seem to illustrate the limits of what even the most intensive intelligence collection can achieve by itself. Blanket NSA 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 August.


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. The agency immediately organized a high-tech espionage mission, part of a continuing project focused on Khamenei called Operation Dreadnought.

Working closely with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles satellite photography, and GCHQ, the NSA 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 Khamenei’s aides fretting about finding a crane to load an ambulance and firetruck onto trucks for the journey. They listened as he addressed a crowd, segregated by gender, in a soccer field.

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 NSA 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 advantage.

By many accounts, the agency provides more than half of the intelligence nuggets delivered to the White House each morning in the president’s Daily Brief.

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 gotten the agency in trouble with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a federal court that polices its programs for breaches of Americans’ privacy.

In the funding boom that followed Sept. 11, the agency expanded and decentralized far beyond its Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland, 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 U.S. missions abroad.

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 U.S.-run web is only part of the story. 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.

Hacking spreads

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 Snowden’s documents describe the exploits of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), the prim name for the NSA division that breaks into computers around the world to steal the data inside, and sometimes to leave spy software behind. TAO 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 encoded.

The NSA’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 and go through the windows they have left ajar.

In one 2010 hacking operation code-named Ironavenger, for instance, the NSA 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 inside.

The Americans silently followed the foreign hackers, collecting documents and passwords from computers in the hostile country. They got a look inside that government and simultaneously got a close-up look at the ally’s cyberskills.

Joel Brenner, the agency’s former inspector general, says much of the criticism is unfair, reflecting a naiveté about the realpolitik of spying.

“The agency is being browbeaten for doing too well the things it’s supposed to do,” he said.

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

Another former insider worries less about foreign leaders’ sensitivities than the potential danger the sprawling agency poses at home. William Binney, a former senior NSA official who has become an outspoken critic, said he has no problem with spying on foreign targets such as Brazil’s president or the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“That’s pretty much what every government does,” he said. But 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 U.S. public.

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

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