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Why has NSA failed to keep its own secrets?

Mark Urban
Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe NSA has grown into a huge data-mining bureaucracy driven by organisational imperatives

WASHINGTON: The past week has been a wretched one for the US National Security Agency (NSA), with revelations of large-scale trawling of phone call data in France and Spain, as well as of eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During these months, since thousands of files copied by former NSA contactor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden started leaking into the public domain, the US has been compared to an Orwellian Big Brother state.

But I cannot help wondering, if the NSA is as powerful as its critics have claimed, why has it been so useless at protecting its secrets?

Where are the worm viruses unleashed into the computer systems of newspapers that have published US secrets? The court orders to prevent additional disclosures? And, if you enjoy spy fiction, the deniable operators climbing over balconies in Brazil or Hong Kong to steal laptops or indeed terminate their owners?

The American system of official secrecy has for years operated on the basis of targeting the leaker "pour decourager les autres".

In August, the trial of Private Bradley Manning ended with a 35 year sentence for passing classified material to Wikileaks.

As for this latest bout of revelation, involving information about phone and internet spying that is much more highly classified than anything Pte Manning had access to, on the surface it seems only the British authorities have acted in an attempt to stop further publication.

British intelligence officers have watched journalists destroying some computers at the Guardian newspapers.

'Aspects of incompetence'

And David Miranda, the partner of one of the journalists holding the largest amount of Snowden files, was also stopped in August as he changed planes at Heathrow airport, questioned and had memory devices confiscated.

Indeed, the Miranda episode is pretty much the only one since the publication of the Snowden stories that suggests some kind of joined up response aimed at frustrating further publication.

It had the hint, with its foreknowledge of Mr Miranda's travel plans and the fact that he was carrying these files, of an operation based on precisely the kind of intelligence gathering that Mr Snowden has warned of.

In the US though there has been pretty much nothing. And this is despite the fact that it is common journalistic knowledge that the Guardian journalists sitting on a great many more files, drip feeding them into the public domain, have been operating in New York.

There are aspects of incompetence to it.

Mr Snowden was part of an army of more than 800,000 people with clearance to access such damaging material, and was able to get it again when working with a contractor despite concerns having been expressed at the CIA about his motives.

Some "lessons learned" studies have been launched within the intelligence community, but not yet with any result in terms of cutting the numbers given access to such secrets, or barring from similar work the contractor that employed him.

As for the media, well this crisis should put to bed the idea that that a call from the White House to the editor of the Washington Post or New York Times can simply squash a story like this.

There have been no US legal attempts to force journalists to destroy or turn over what they have, and in the UK a DA Notice on the subject has been widely ignored.

Even the PR response has been limited and ill co-ordinated. Monday's New York Times comments that "the administration has seemed uncertain about how to handle the reports", concerned the interception of the German leader's mobile phone. Last week, the attempts of one former NSA director to fight back turned into farce when his briefings to journalists by phone were overheard by a fellow passenger on a train who started tweeting updates.

Spying allegations

The latest revelations, about tapping world leaders phone calls, also leave one wondering what use the content of Ms Merkel's calls were to US policy makers?

image copyrightAP
image captionEdward Snowden disclosed details of several top-secret mass surveillance programs to the press

The White House has tied itself in knots over whether to admit the president was actually briefed on what she was saying, but it can hardly be said that it gave the US some amazing advantage in the bilateral relationship with Germany.

Some in Washington have detected in the president's unwillingness to take stronger action in defence of the NSA, a desire to see the vast intelligence bureaucracies that grew up after 9/11 cut down to size.

Whether or not that is the case, any attempt to halt the revelations by legal action would inevitably have brought accusations of an assault on cherished constitutional freedoms.

So the leaks continue and today we discover that the NSA recorded the call data (ie the numbers dialled and duration, rather than the actual content) of 60m Spanish calls during one month.

Perhaps Kafka rather than Orwell provides the better literary template for this ongoing story.

The NSA has grown into a huge data-mining bureaucracy driven by its own organisational imperatives.

It pursues ever greater coverage, storage of data, staff and budget.

In many cases it does things because it can, rather than because somebody has asked whether the information is useful, whether it is worth the potential price if discovered, or whether the activity can actually be prevented from coming into the public domain.