Yesterday, the Washington Post’s top story was another leak from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Unlike many of the Post’s other Snowden stories, where sensationalism has greatly outweighed the reported facts about this or that NSA program, this one had more substance and less breathless analysis.
The core of the story is the Post’s own analysis of some 160,000 email and instant messaging exchanges that NSA had intercepted and which Snowden had somehow gotten access to and passed along to the Post’s Barton Gellman. The headline in the story is that the vast majority of the Internet cache collected by NSA was not of suspected terrorists but non-targeted individuals, American and non-American alike. With graphics included, the Post concludes that NSA has been collecting vast amounts of data involving the communications of ordinary, presumably, innocent citizens, while finding within this collection sweep only a small percentage of useable intelligence.
Yet, as the Post reporters also report: NSA does make a significant effort to minimize the identities of Americans caught in the collection sweep.
“Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents. NSA analysts masked, or “minimized,” more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans’ privacy….At one level, the NSA shows scrupulous care in protecting the privacy of U.S. nationals and, by policy, those of its four closest intelligence allies — Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. More than 1,000 distinct “minimization” terms appear in the files, attempting to mask the identities of “possible,” “potential” and “probable” U.S. persons, along with the names of U.S. beverage companies, universities, fast-food chains and Web-mail hosts.”
And isn’t the fact that the proportion of useable versus unusable intelligence is precisely what one would expect from the effort to find the proverbial “needle in the haystack?” An effort, I might add, that we demanded from the intelligence community in the wake of the attacks on 9/11 in order to help to preempt similar attacks? And, indeed, as the Post story reports, in the cache of materials they reviewed, there were considerable intelligence finds, including intelligence leading to the capture of a terrorist bomb builder and the discovery of a covert nuclear project abroad.
Not too surprisingly, the Post story also focuses on the fact that, while there was a substantial effort to mask American identities of “possible,” “potential,” and “probable” U.S. persons, the reporters “found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S. residents.” However, absent more details, the reader is left to wonder whether this is the result of NSA not properly scrubbing the collection thoroughly to keep American identities from being circulated needlessly among intelligence analysts or a by-product of the fact that an overseas target may well be in contact with people in the United States, with that information being of relevance even if the person he’s in contact with is not suspected of any illicit activity.