One of the most startling disclosures from Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked top secret documents to The Guardian andThe Washington Post was that he could tap into the private email of any American citizen—even President Obama—from his desk station in Hawaii.
Former top NSA officials interviewed by The Daily Beast Tuesday, however, say Snowden’s claim that systems administrators like himself could eavesdrop on U.S. citizens is incorrect, and that any NSA employee that targeted even a foreign source for personal reasons would be stripped of clearances and fired on the spot.
"Not all analysts have the power to target anything,” Snowden told The Guardian in an interview posted Sunday. “But I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.”
Michael Hayden, a former NSA director and CIA director, said Snowden’s assertion was “absolutely outrageous.” “He was not a collector,” he said. “I don’t know he could do anything like that,” adding that Snowden, a low-ranking contractor, would not have the authority or access to listen in on phone calls or read emails from anyone.
It is difficult to evaluate the claims of the officials—or those of Snowden—because the organization operates in almost total secrecy. A running joke inside the intelligence community is that NSA stands for “no such agency.”
Adding to the confusion is that even members of Congress, such as Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, are now saying they were not fully informed about the dragnet collection of call records of U.S. telecom companies, and other data from internet companies. On Tuesday, lawyers from the Justice Department and the NSA briefed members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the two NSA programs disclosed by The Guardian and The Washington Post.
“Rogue collection” at the NSA over the years was extremely rare, the former top official said. Asked for an example, Hayden said he remembered a collector who was fired for trying to snoop on his ex-wife overseas.
“A rogue collector would lose his clearance and be run out of the organization,” said Joel Brenner, a former inspector general and senior counsel for the NSA who left the agency in 2010. Brenner said that he didn’t recall ever dealing with "rogue collecting" during his time at as inspector general.
What did occupy his time, said Brenner, was what he called errors and “over-collection”— information with no foreign intelligence value or unintentionally collected information about a U.S. person. “You’ve got to understand that over-collection is to some degree inevitable,” he said. “When you are taking information off of a fiber optic cable with unimaginably large volumes passing at the speed of light, you are going to get some stuff that has to be filtered out later.”
Another issue, Brenner said, is “analytical error,” when a collector who believes he or she was targeting a foreign person turned out to instead be targeting an American citizen. In such an instance, the NSA is compelled to eliminate the data that was collected. “If someone is making lots of errors they will get a talking-to.”
While the NSA has been rocked by the week’s disclosures, the agency appears to have anticipated a backlash against its mining of Internet data and call records. In February, the agency’s general counsel Rajesh De gave a public, if little noticed at the time, speech at Georgetown University responding to what he said were three “false myths” about the NSA: that “NSA is a vacuum that indiscriminately sweeps up and stores global communications;” that “NSA is spying on Americans at home and abroad with questionable or no legal basis;” and that “NSA operates in the shadows free from external scrutiny or any true accountability.”
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