NSA’s partnership with AT&T is perfectly normal and legal.
Yesterday’s alleged bombshell, “The Wiretap Rooms: The NSA’s Hidden Spy Hubs in Eight U.S. Cities,” was trademark. Based on top-secret documents stolen by Snowden when he worked as an IT contractor for the agency, this incredibly verbose exposé reveals that NSA has partnered with private telecommunications firms for decades to accomplish its mission: the collection and analysis of signals intelligence for the U.S. government.
The post makes the point that:
The Intercept’s NSA “bombshell” is one of the more notorious examples of a buried lede in modern journalism. After you read several thousand words of hand-wringing about the agency’s allegedly nefarious activities, you encounter the salient fact that FAIRVIEW is a perfectly normal and legal operation, approved by Congress many times, to assist NSA in its core mission of collecting and disseminating foreign intelligence. It is not a program to spy on Americans.
By its very nature, SIGINT follows telecommunications and has for more than a century. In secret—well, until yesterday—NSA partners with AT&T in pursuit of Internet traffic because that’s how global telecommunications is routed in the 21st century. A staggering percentage of the world’s online communications travel through U.S. firms and servers. They are scanned using very complex SIGINT filtering technology to look for intelligence information of value—while protecting Americans’ civil liberties.
Here they take advantage of low-information readers who know nothing about SIGINT, its history, or how it works in the real world. There is nothing new about using American-based telecommunications firms to assist intelligence collection; it’s been going on for a century now. At the end of World War I, Washington, D.C. secretly established the Cipher Bureau, a small, deep-cover SIGINT operation located in New York City to collect foreign intelligence. It was based in Manhattan, not our nation’s capital, because that was where the international cable traffic got routed. Indeed, the shop masqueraded as a private IT firm to provide cover for its highly classified work. The Cipher Bureau needed to be where the communications were, and in the decade of its existence, it did an impressive job of providing our top military and diplomatic officials with high-grade SIGINT about foreign governments.
Such knowledge of how intelligence works in the real world is not conducive to promoting outrage, however, so it gets omitted from most present-day accounts, particularly sensationalist ones whose obvious intent is to smear legitimate, law-based espionage by Western democracies. This is yet another example of advocacy-journalists creating Fake News with selective use of facts to weave a narrative that’s steeped in disinformation. It’s not difficult to understand why Putin’s Kremlin dislikes NSA passionately, given that agency’s role as the cornerstone of the Western intelligence alliance, but it’s worth asking why certain Western journalists seem to share that Russian passion.