For those of us who know something about the National Security Agency (NSA) and who have at the same time been closely following the drip-drop page-at-a-time disclosures of NSA documents by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, this has been an enormously frustrating time. Many of the recent headlines in the newspapers, especially in Europe, promise much, but when you do a tear-down analysis of the contents there is very little of substance there that we did not already know. Last week’s expose by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad was just such an example, where with one single example everything that the newspaper claimed was brand new had (in fact) been published 17 years earlier by Dutch historian Dr. Cees Wiebes. Ah, what we do to sell newspapers.
There should also be tighter fact-checking by the newspapers of their interpretation of the information that they are being spoon-fed before they rush to print.
For instance, over the past month or so we have been fed once-a-week articles from newspapers France, Germany, Spain, Norway and now the Netherlands (does anyone see a pattern here) all based on a single NSA document from the agency’s BOUNDLESSINFORMANT database of metadata intercepts for a 30-day period from December 2012 to January 2013. The newspaper headlines all have claimed that the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT revealed that NSA was intercepting the telephone and internet communications of these countries. But an analysis of the SIGINT Activity Designators (SIGADs) listed in these documents reveals that NSA was not intercepting these communications, but rather the host nation intelligence services – to whit the BND in Germany, DGSE in France, the FE in Norway and the MIVD in the Netherlands. These agencies have secretly been proving this metadata material to NSA, although it is not known for how long.
There are other factual problems with the interpretation that has been placed on these documents. It really would be nice if the individuals using these materials do a little research into NSA operational procedures before leaping to conclusions lest they be further embarrassed in the future by mistakes such as this.
I am not the only person who has noted some of these glaring mistakes being made by the authors of the recent newspaper articles based on the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT document. Here is an insightful study done by a Dutch analyst who has been closely following the materials being leaked:
Screenshots from BOUNDLESSINFORMANT can be misleading
November 23, 2013
Over the last months, a number of European newspapers published screenshots from an NSA tool codenamed BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, which were said to show the number of data that NSA collected from those countries.
Most recently, a dispute about the numbers mentioned in a screenshot about Norway urged Snowden-journalist Glenn Greenwald to publish a similar screenshot about Afghanistan. But as this article will show, Greenwald’s interpretation of the latter was wrong, which also raises new questions about how to make sense out of the screenshots about other countries.
Norway vs Afghanistan
On November 19, the website of the Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet published a BOUNDLESSINFORMANT screenshot which, according to the paper, showed that NSA apparently monitored 33 million Norwegian phone calls (although actually, the NSA tool only presents metadata).
The report by Dagbladet was almost immediatly corrected by the Norwegian military intelligence agency Etteretningstjenesten (or E-tjenesten), which said that they collected the data “to support Norwegian military operations in conflict areas abroad, or connected to the fight against terrorism, also abroad” and that “this was not data collection from Norway against Norway, but Norwegian data collection that is shared with the Americans”.
Earlier, a very similar explanation was given about the data from France, Spain and Germany. They too were said to be collected by French, Spanish and German intelligence agencies outside their borders, like in war zones, and then shared with NSA. Director Alexander added that these data were from a system that contained phone records collected by the US and NATO countries “in defense of our countries and in support of military operations”.
Glenn Greenwald strongly contradicted this explanation in an article written for Dagbladet on November 22. In trying to prove his argument, he also released a screenshot from BOUNDLESSINFORMANT about Afghanistan (shown down below) and explained it as follows:
“What it shows is that the NSA collects on average of 1.2-1.5 million calls per day from that country: a small subset of the total collected by the NSA for Spain (4 million/day) and Norway (1.2 million).
Clearly, the NSA counts the communications it collects from Afghanistan in the slide labeled «Afghanistan» — not the slides labeled «Spain» or «Norway». Moreover, it is impossible that the slide labeled «Spain» and the slide labeled «Norway» only show communications collected from Afghanistan because the total collected from Afghanistan is so much less than the total collected from Spain and Norway.”
But Greenwald apparently forgot some documents he released earlier:
Last September, the Indian paper The Hindu published three less known versions of the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT global overview page, showing the total amounts of data sorted in three different ways: Aggregate, DNI and DNR. Each results in a slightly different top 5 of countries, which is also reflected in the colors of the heat map.
In the overall (aggregated) counting, Afghanistan is in the second place, with a total amount of over 2 billion internet records (DNI) and almost 22 billion telephony records (DNR) counted:
The screenshot about Afghanistan published by Greenwald only shows information about some 35 million telephony (DNR) records, collected by a facility only known by its SIGAD US-962A5 and processed or analysed by DRTBox. This number is just a tiny fraction of the billions of data from both internet and telephone communications from Afghanistan as listed in the global overview.
With these big differences, it’s clear that this screenshot about Afghanistan is not showing all data which NSA collected from that country, not even all telephony data. The most likely option is that it only shows metadata from telephone communications intercepted by the facility designated US-962A5.
That fits the fact that this SIGAD denotes a sub- or even sub-sub-facility of US-962, which means there are more locations under this collection program. Afghanistan is undoubtedly being monitored by numerous SIGINT collection stations and facilities, so seeing only one SIGAD in this screenshot proves that it can never show the whole collection from that country.
This makes that Greenwald’s argument against the data being collected abroad is not valid anymore (although there maybe other arguments against it). Glenn Greenwald was asked via Twitter to comment on the findings of this article, but there was no reaction.
The new insight about the Afghanistan data means that the interpretation of the screenshots about other countries can be wrong too. Especially those showing only one collection facility, like France, Spain and Norway (and maybe also Italy and The Netherlands), might not be showing information about that specific country, but maybe only about the specific intercept location.
This also leads to other questions, like: are this really screenshots (why is there no classification marking)? Are they part of other documents or did Snowden himself made them? And how did he make the selection: by country, by facility, or otherwise?
There are many questions about NSA capabilities and operations which Snowden cannot answer, but he can answer how exactly he got to these documents and what their proper context is. Maybe Glenn Greenwald also knows more about this, and if so, it’s about time to tell that part of the story too.
Matthew M. Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror (January 2012) and The Secret Sentry, the definitive history of the National Security Agency. He is a leading intelligence historian and expert on the NSA, and a regular commentator on intelligence matters for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the National Journal, the Associated Press, CBS News, National Public Radio (NPR) and many others. He lives in Washington, DC.
November 24, 2013