Three weeks since news broke that the National Security Administration is conducting a massive international surveillance operation, the US corporate media is still largely consumed by the witch-hunt for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and smear campaigns against Snowden and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, to whom Snowden revealed the leaked documents.
However, the international community has reacted to the disclosures with alarm. Revelations that the NSA has been tapping the phone and internet communications of foreign individuals and governments has spurred world leaders to denounce the global superpower as a 'hypocrite' and, in a number of instances, offer asylum or assistance to Snowden.
"The Prism-gate affair is itself just like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet security of the country concerned," said Chinese Ministry of National Defense Spokesperson, Colonel Yang Yujun.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the five individuals who is credited as being a 'father of the internet' agreed telling the London Times newspaper that the 'insidious' spying by the United States was hypocritical in light of the US government's frequent 'policing' of other states.
"In the Middle East, people have been given access to the Internet but they have been snooped on and then they have been jailed," he said. "It can be easy for people in the West to say 'oh, those nasty governments should not be allowed access to spy.' But it's clear that developed nations are seriously spying on the Internet."
"It can be easy for people in the West to say 'oh, those nasty governments should not be allowed access to spy.' But it's clear that developed nations are seriously spying on the Internet." –Sir Tim Berners-Lee
The dramatic international backlash is a clear indication of the importance and severity of the leaked information and, in the interest of insuring that these revelations are not eclipsed by more distracting headlines, below is a summary of what we know so far about the NSA's spy program.
Forbes columnist Andy Greenberg offers this run-down of leaked documents published so far (bolding his own):
- The publication of Snowden’s leaks began with a top secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) sent to Verizon on behalf of the NSA, demanding the cell phone records of all of Verizon Business Network Services’ American customers for the three month period ending in July. [...]
- In a congressional hearing, NSA director Keith Alexander argued that the kind of surveillance of Americans’ data revealed in that Verizon order was necessary to for archiving purposes, but was rarely accessed and only with strict oversight from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judges. But another secret document published by the Guardian revealed the NSA’s own rules for when it makes broad exceptions to its foreign vs. U.S. persons distinction, accessing Americans’ data and holding onto it indefinitely. [...]
- Another leaked slide deck revealed a software tool called Boundless Informant, which the NSA appears to use for tracking the origin of data it collects. The leaked materials included a map produced by the program showing the frequency of data collection in countries around the world. While Iran, Pakistan and Jordan appeared to be the most surveilled countries according to the map, it also pointed to significant data collection from the United States.
- A leaked executive order from President Obama shows the administration asked intelligence agencies to draw up a list of potential offensive cyberattack targets around the world. The order, which suggests targeting “systems, processes and infrastructure” states that such offensive hacking operations “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance U.S. national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging.” [...]
- Documents leaked to the Guardian revealed a five-year-old British intelligence scheme to tap transatlantic fiberoptic cables to gather data. A program known as Tempora, created by the U.K.’s NSA equivalent Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has for the last 18 months been able to store huge amounts of that raw data for up to 30 days. Much of the data is shared with the NSA. [...]
- Another GCHQ project revealed to the Guardian through leaked documents intercepted the communications of delegates to the G20 summit of world leaders in London in 2009. [...]
- Snowden showed the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post documents that it said outlined extensive hacking of Chinese and Hong Kong targets by the NSA since 2009, with 61,000 targets globally and “hundreds” in China. [...]
- The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has said that Snowden provided him “thousands” of documents, of which “dozens” are newsworthy. And Snowden himself has said he’d like to expose his trove of leaks to the global media so that each country’s reporters can decide whether “U.S. network operations against their people should be published.” So regardless of where Snowden ends up, expect more of his revelations to follow.
Further, on Thursday journalists Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman revealed in a new Guardian exclusive that for ten years the US had conducted bulk collections of internet metadata, amassing information akin to 'reading one's diary' on both domestic and foreign individuals.
And, in their own cataloging of 'what we know so far,' Pro Publica poses the question, "Is all of this legal?"
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Recently leaked court orders reveal how the Department of Justice, "through a series of legislative changes and court decisions," have evolved the parameters of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, enabling the expansive spy program.
By definition, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides what it is legal for the NSA to do.
But this level of domestic surveillance wasn’t always legal, and the NSA has been found to violate legal standards on more than one occasion. Although the NSA’s broad data collection programs appear to have started shortly after September 11, 2001, the NSA was gradually granted authority to collect domestic information on this scale through a series of legislative changes and court decisions over the next decade. See this timeline of loosening laws. The Director of National Intelligence says that authority for PRISM programs comes from section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Verizon metadata collection order cites section 215 of the Patriot Act. The author of the Patriot Act disagrees that the act justifies the Verizon metadata collection program.
In March 2004, acting Attorney General James Comey ordered a stop to some parts of the secret domestic surveillance programs, but President Bush signed an order re-authorizing it anyway. In response, several top Justice Department officials threatened to resign, including Comey and FBI director Robert Mueller. Bush backed down, and the programs were at least partially suspended for several months.
In 2009, the Justice Department acknowledged that the NSA had collected emails and phone calls of Americans in a way that exceeded legal limitations.
In October 2011, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that the NSA violated the Fourth Amendment at least once. The Justice Department has said that this ruling must remain secret, but we know it concerned some aspect of the "minimization" rules the govern what the NSA can do with domestic communications. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court recently decided that this ruling can be released, but Justice Department has not yet done so.
And regarding the aforementioned international backlash, Pro Publica responds to the question "What if I'm not American?"
All bets are off. There do not appear to be any legal restrictions on what the NSA can do with the communications of non-U.S. persons. Since a substantial fraction of the world’s Internet data passes through the United States, or its allies, the U.S. has the ability to observe and record the communications of much of the world’s population. The European Union has already complained to the U.S. Attorney General.