Former NSA Chief on Latest Leaked Dragnet Spy Program: It's Real, and It's Spectacular

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 6 2013 5:49 PM

Former NSA Chief on Latest Leaked Dragnet Spy Program: It's Real, and It's Spectacular

175684451
Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Does the NSA really operate a vast database that allows its analysts to sift through millions of records showing nearly everything a user does on the Internet, as was recently reported? Yes, and people should stop worrying and learn to love it, according former NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

Last week, the Guardian published a series of leaked documents revealing new details about an NSA surveillance program called XKEYSCORE. The newspaper said that the program enabled the agency to “search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals,” and secret slides dated 2008 showed how people could be deemed a target for searching the Web for “suspicious stuff” or by using encryption.

Advertisement

Following the disclosures, Hayden appeared on CNN to discuss the agency’s surveillance programs. The general, who directed the NSA from 1999 through 2005, was remarkably candid in his responses to Erin Burnett’s questions about the Guardian’s XKEYSCORE report. Was there any truth to claims that the NSA is sifting through millions of browsing histories and able to collect virtually everything users do on the Internet? “Yeah,” Hayden said. “And it's really good news.”

Not only that, Hayden went further. He revealed that the XKEYSCORE was “a tool that's been developed over the years, and lord knows we were trying to develop similar tools when I was at the National Security Agency.” The XKEYSCORE system, Hayden said, allows analysts to enter a “straight-forward question” into a computer and sift through the “oceans of data” that have been collected as part of foreign intelligence gathering efforts.

How this process works was illustrated in the Guardian’s report. Analysts can enter search terms to sift through data and select from a drop-down menu a target’s “foreignness factor,” which is intended to minimize the warrantless surveillance of Americans. However, operating a vast electronic dragnet such as this is far from an exact science, and the NSA’s system of sifting data from the backbone of international Internet networks likely sometimes involves gobbling up information on Americans’ communications and online activity—whether it is done wittingly or not. Indeed, the NSA reportedly only needs to have 51 percent certainty that it is targeting a foreigner. And as leaked secret rules for the surveillance have shown, even if the NSA does “inadvertently” gather Americans’ communications, it can hold on to them if they are deemed valuable for vague “foreign intelligence” purposes or if the communications show evidence of a crime that has occurred or may occur in the future.

In the CNN interview, Hayden described XKEYSCORE as “really quite an achievement” and said that it enabled NSA spies to find the needle in the haystack. But his ardent defense of the system is unlikely to reassure civil liberties advocates. Having Hayden’s support is a rather dubious stamp of approval, particularly because he was responsible for leading the NSA’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program, which was initiated post-9/11 and exposed by the New York Times in 2005. Hayden later went on to lead the CIA from 2006 through 2009, where he oversaw the use of the waterboarding torture technique and the operation of a controversial black-site prison program that was eventually dismantled by President Obama. The former NSA chief retired in 2009, but he has since become a regular media commentator, using a recent column at CNN to blast Snowden for leaking the secret NSA documents and implying that he’d like to see the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald prosecuted as a “co-conspirator” for his role reporting the surveillance scoops.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.