That is the deeply authoritarian and government-subservient strain of American political and media culture personified: if a US national security official says something, then it shall mindlessly be deemed tantamount to truth, with no evidence required and without regard to how much those officials have misled in the past. EFF’s Trevor Timm last night summarizedthis bizarre mentality as follows: “Oh, NSA says a story about them is wrong? Well, that settles that! Thankfully, they never lie, obfuscate, mislead, misdirect, or misinform!”
Over the last five months, Laura Poitras and I have published dozens and dozens of articles reporting on NSA documents around the world: with newspapers and a team of editors and other reporters in the US, UK, Germany, Brazil, India, France and Spain. Not a single one of those articles bears even a trivial correction, let alone a substantive one, because we have been meticulous in the reporting, worked on every article with teams of highly experienced editors and reporters, and, most importantly, have published the evidence in the form of NSA documents that prove the reporting true.
It’s certainly possible that, like all journalists, we’ll make a mistake at some point. And if and when that does happen, we’ll do what good journalists do: do further reporting and, if necessary, correct any inaccuracy. But no evidence of any kind (as opposed to unverified NSA accusations) has been presented that this was the case here, and ample evidence strongly suggests it was not:
First, these exact same Boundless Informant documents have been used by newspapers around the world in exactly the same way for months. The NSA never claimed they were inaccurate until yesterday: when it is engulfed by major turmoil over spying on European allies.
More than three months ago – in late June – Der Spiegel published an article under the headline “Partner and Target: NSA Snoops on 500 Million German Data Connections.” It reported that the Boundless Informant documents “reveal that the American intelligence service monitors around half a billion telephone calls, emails and text messages in the country every month.” The report was based on the same set of documents, for the same time period, as the one published in France and Spain:
The statistics, which SPIEGEL has also seen, show that data is collected from Germany on normal days for up to 20 million telephone calls and 10 million Internet data exchanges. Last Christmas Eve, it collected data on around 13 million phone calls and about half as many online exchanges. On the busiest days, such as January 7 of this year, the information gathered spiked to nearly 60 million communication connections under surveillance.
A similar article, using the same set of documents, was published in Brazil’s O Globo a week later, reporting the NSA’s collection of the data for more than 2 billion calls and emails in Brazil in a single month. Another article, in the Indian dailythe Hindu, reported on bulk collection of the data of calls in India based on the same document set.
And the very first article on Boundless Informant documents was published in the first week of our reporting in the Guardian, and detailed how this set of documents “details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks.” Those documents, we reported, “show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013.” The article detailed several country-specific metadata totals based on those documents.
Nobody from the US government ever once – over the last four months – claimed that any of this reporting was inaccurate. The US government was asked for comment on all of these stories, including the ones in France and Spain, and never once claimed it was mistaken. That’s because this is exactly what these Boundless Informant documents show. Perhaps journalists should exercise a bit of skepticism – demand some evidence – when the NSA suddenly claims these documents are misreported in the midst of one of the agency’s worst scandals in history.
Second, note what the NSA is not denying: that they collect the data on the communications activities of millions and millions of people in European countries. They claim that these two slides in particular have been misinterpreted, but have not denied the story itself.
Third, look at the NSA’s own documents, and see how they themselves describe what these Boundless Informant documents actually count. As part of our reporting in early June at the Guardian on these documents, we published in full the NSA’s own document about what data is counted. Those interested should read the full document, but here are the relevant excerpts (emphasis added):
BOUNDLESSINFORMANT is a GAO [Global Access Operations, a branch of the NSA] prototype tool for a self-documenting SIGINT system. . . BOUNDLESSINFORMANT provides the ability to dynamically describe GAO’s collection capabilities (through metadata record counts) with no human intervention and graphically display the information in a map view, bar chart, or simple table. . . .
By extracting information from every DNI and DNR metadata record, the tool is able to create a near real-time snapshot of GAO’s collection capability at any given moment. The tool allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collection against that country. The tool also allows users to view high level metrics by organization and then drill down to a more actionable level – down to the program and cover term.
Could that be any clearer? These documents provide a “near real-time snapshot” of the NSA’s “collection capability at any given moment”. The documents show the collection efforts “against that country.” Among the questions answered by these documents are “How many records are collected for an organizational unit” and “How many records (and what type) are collected against a particular country?”
Fourth, the fact some of this data is collected by virtue of cooperation with a country’s own intelligence service does not contradict our reporting. To the contrary: the secret cooperation between some European intelligence agencies and the NSA has been a featured part of our reporting from the start. Back in early July, der Spiegel, using Snowden documents and Snowden’s own words, reported on extensive cooperation between the German BND and NSA. And this morning, in an article we prepared weeks ago, El Mundo published an article – using Snowden documents – reporting the cooperation between the Spanish intelligence service and the NSA.
The NSA spies extensively with (but rarely on) its four closest, English-speaking surveillance allies in the “Five Eyes” group: the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But for many European nations, the NSA cooperates with those nations’ intelligence services but also spies on their populations and their governments without any such cooperation. That negates none of our reporting: it is simply a restatement of it.
Finally, contrary to the suggestions of one particularly gullible reporter that these slides are fake and of unknown origin, their authenticity is beyond dispute, just like every document we’ve thus far published. A separate top secret NSA document on Boundless Informant, to be published very shortly, in its title describes Boundless Informant as “Describing Mission Capabilities from Metadata Records“.
The first page states that its purpose is to “describe the collection capabilities and posture of our SIGINT infrastructure”. And it contains not only the Boundless Informant maps that were long ago published, but exactly the type of accompanying graphs that were published this week, taken from the same NSA electronic file. The core purpose of these Boundless Informant documents, it says, is to “review every valid DNI and DNR metadata record passing through the NSA SIGINT infrastructure”: exactly what our reporting stated.
Again, it’s certainly possible, given the number of reports and the complexity of these matters, that reporters working on these stories will at some point make a mistake. All reporters do. But this thing called “evidence” should be required before blindly believing the claims and accusations of NSA officials. If that lesson hasn’t been learned yet, when will it be?