It seems that every day brings a new revelation about the scope of the NSA’s heretofore secret warrantless mass surveillance programs. And as we learn more, the picture becomes increasingly alarming. Last week we discovered that the NSA shares information with a division of the Drug Enforcement Agency called the Special Operations Division (SOD). The DEA uses the information in drug investigations. But it also gives NSA data out to other agencies – in particular, the Internal Revenue Service, which, as you might imagine, is always looking for information on tax cheats.
The Obama Administration repeatedly has assured us that the NSA does not collect the private information of ordinary Americans. Those statements simply are not true. We now know that the agency regularly intercepts and inspects Americans’ phone calls, emails, and other communications, and it shares this information with other federal agencies that use it to investigate drug trafficking and tax evasion. Worse, DEA and IRS agents are told to lie to judges and defense attorneys about their use of NSA data, and about the very existence of the SOD, and to make up stories about how these investigations started so that no one will know information is coming from the NSA’s top secret surveillance programs.
“Now, wait a minute,” you might be saying. “How does a foreign intelligence agency which supposedly is looking for terrorists and only targets non-U.S. persons get ahold of information useful in IRS investigations of American tax cheats?” To answer that question, let’s review this week’s revelations.
Back in 2005, several media outlets reported that NSA has direct access to the stream of communications data, carried over fiber optic cables that connect central telephone switching facilities in the U.S. with one another and with networks in foreign countries. Reports suggested that the NSA had installed equipment referred to as “splitter cabinets” at main phone company offices, where they make a copy of all data traveling on the fiber optic cable and route it into a secret room where computers scan through the information – searching for names and terms that are themselves secret — as it goes by. For years, the federal government refused to comment on these reports. But on August 8, an unnamed senior administration official confirmed this practice to the New York Times.
We also learned that the NSA can grab information off these fiber optic cables in near real time using a tool called XKeyscore (XKS). Searching the firehose of Internet and telephone data as it flows takes an immense amount of computing power. The XKS system dumps a portion of the communications information NSA snatches into a truly immense local storage “cache.” This cache can keep network information for a few days, depending on the amount of traffic. This gives the NSA’s computers time to search through what otherwise would be an unmanageable torrent of emails, phone calls, chats, social network posts, and other communications. And importantly, XKS searches do not involve just communications “metadata”. The XKS system searches the contents of our Internet and telephone communications. Which is directly at odds with repeated Administration statements suggesting that NSA mass surveillance was limited to metadata.