Edward Snowden fact-checking: Which surveillance claims were right?

Fact and Fiction in the NSA Surveillance Scandal

Fact and Fiction in the NSA Surveillance Scandal

The citizen’s guide to the future.
June 26 2013 11:57 AM

Fact and Fiction in the NSA Surveillance Scandal

The whistle-blower’s claims, revisited.

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It is unclear exactly how many emails, phone calls, text messages, and other communications the NSA presently intercepts the content of. However, a Washington Post investigation in 2010 reported that the agency was collecting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other types of communications daily and sorting them into 70 different databases. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that some 145 billion emails are sent daily worldwide, along with at least 13 billion phone calls and 23 billion text messages. Going by these estimates, it seems likely that the NSA is intercepting less than 5 percent of all global communications each day—though this still amounts to more than 600 billion intercepted communications in a single year.

It is also worth noting that the NSA is able to gain access to intelligence gleaned from troves of emails and phone calls collected by foreign allies—such as from British eavesdropping agency GCHQ. And it is always working to gather more communications and increase capacity, which was starkly illustrated in one document published by the Guardian that quoted NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander during a visit to Menwith Hill, a joint NSA-GCHQ spy base in England. "Why can't we collect all the signals, all the time?” Alexander reportedly said, in reference to communications signals. “Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith."


Edward Snowden heads: Two. It is clear that the NSA, with its phone records program, is gathering data on the communications of all Americans. But there is no evidence so far to suggest that it has the technical capability required to gather the content and/or metadata of all international and domestic communications—though it would surely like to do so if it could.


Claim: The revealed NSA surveillance programs have helped prevent potential terrorist events more than 50 times since 9/11 (NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, June 18).

Status: This remains unclear and in dispute, in part because the NSA says it cannot release all of the evidence to back up the claim publicly because doing so would reveal “sources and methods.” However, during a congressional hearing last week, Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI, did describe two cases in which he claimed the surveillance had proved valuable. The first involved the mass phone records database being used to flag up as suspicious men who were later convicted of sending about $8,500 to Somali extremist group Al Shabab. The second example, apparently authorized as part of the PRISM Internet surveillance program, helped discover and disrupt a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, according to Joyce. But Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have said that they have not seen any evidence that the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of Americans phone records produced any “uniquely valuable intelligence" that helped stop terror attacks. Separately, CNN’s Peter Bergen analyzed foiled terror plots and concluded that “traditional law enforcement methods have overwhelmingly played the most significant role” and that “the NSA surveillance programs are wide-ranging fishing expeditions with little to show for them.” (Bergen is the director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

Edward Snowden heads: One and a half. It is possible that the surveillance programs in place have proved useful in some terrorism investigations. But the question is whether the plots could still have been foiled using more restricted, targeted surveillance as opposed to a vast dragnet. So far, the government has failed to make a successful case for the dragnet option—and it will have a hard time doing so if it continues to refuse to provide clear and detailed evidence to back up its claims.


Claim: Surveillance programs disclosed by the Guardian and the Washington Post are the “tip of the iceberg” (Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., following a classified briefing on June 12).

Status: This appears to be almost certainly the case. While the phone records program and the PRISM program have shed an unprecedented level of light on the NSA’s activities, a great deal is still unknown about other surveillance programs it operates. On June 15 the Associated Press reported that the PRISM program “is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort” and that the agency is operating a different and larger program that “snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet's backbone.” The same day, the Washington Post described how under President George W. Bush, the NSA began “siphoning e-mail metadata and technical records of Skype calls from data links owned by AT&T, Sprint and MCI, which later merged with Verizon.” This appears in line with what an AT&T whistle-blower alleged in 2006 when he said in a sworn declaration that the NSA was routing AT&T communications through a secret "secure room" where they could be intercepted.

However, the scope of these data mining efforts is not limited to just a handful of companies. Earlier this year, a book called Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry revealed the existence of an NSA surveillance program, named Ragtime, which collects data from as many as 50 companies. Much about the true scale of these controversial programs has remained undisclosed. But that may change in the coming days and weeks, as new details from documents leaked by Edward Snowden continue to be published.

Edward Snowden heads: Five. In recent weeks, the Guardian and the Washington Post have sledgehammered the excessive secrecy shrouding the NSA, exposing its spying activities to unprecedented scrutiny. But the agency was nicknamed the Shadow Factory for a reason—and we are still in the dark about the full scope of its controversial clandestine surveillance programs.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.