Obama Wants to End NSA Debate, but the Leaks Just Keep Coming

New revelations show the agency is collecting 200 million text messages a day from cell-phone users around the world.

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
Dustin Volz
Jan. 16, 2014, 11:04 a.m.

Good luck with your speech on gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance to­mor­row, Pres­id­ent Obama. New rev­el­a­tions about the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency pub­lished Thursday by The Guard­i­an ex­pose yet an­oth­er secret agency pro­gram, one that col­lects al­most 200 mil­lion text mes­sages every day from cell phones around the world.

The new dis­clos­ure, again fed by leaked doc­u­ments provided by Ed­ward Snowden, ar­rives less than 24 hours be­fore Obama will give an ad­dress call­ing for re­forms to the NSA. The pres­id­ent is widely ex­pec­ted to em­brace some — but not all — of the re­forms called for last month by his hand-picked sur­veil­lance re­view board, but the tim­ing of this new re­port strongly in­dic­ates we’re far from hear­ing the last from the massive trove of Snowden files.

The Brit­ish pa­per pub­lished clas­si­fied NSA slides from a 2011 present­a­tion de­tail­ing a pro­gram known as “Dish­fire,” which col­lec­ted 194 mil­lion text mes­sages per day in April of that year. Per­haps even more start­ling, a com­pan­ion pro­gram called “Prefer” ran “auto­mated ana­lys­is on the un­tar­geted com­mu­nic­a­tions.”

U.S. phone num­bers, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments, were re­moved from the data­base.

Ac­cord­ing to The Guard­i­an‘s ana­lys­is, the pro­grams col­lect:

  • More than 5 mil­lion missed-call alerts, for use in con­tact-chain­ing ana­lys­is (work­ing out someone’s so­cial net­work from who they con­tact and when)
  • De­tails of 1.6 mil­lion bor­der cross­ings a day, from net­work roam­ing alerts
  • More than 110,000 names, from elec­tron­ic busi­ness cards, which also in­cluded the abil­ity to ex­tract and save im­ages
  • Over 800,000 fin­an­cial trans­ac­tions, either through text-to-text pay­ments or link­ing cred­it cards to phone users.

The in­ter­na­tion­al sur­veil­lance of text mes­sages calls to mind earli­er dis­clos­ures re­veal­ing that the NSA has tapped phone lines of some heads of state around the world, in­clud­ing Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. The latest leak may prompt Obama to en­gage in an­oth­er round of as­sur­ances with world lead­ers sus­pi­cious of sur­veil­lance. 

What We're Following See More »
USA Today Weighs in on Presidential Race for First Time Ever
2 hours ago

"By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump." That's the message from USA Today editors, who are making the first recommendation on a presidential race in the paper's 34-year history. It's not exactly an endorsement; they make clear that the editorial board "does not have a consensus for a Clinton endorsement." But they state flatly that Donald Trump is, by "unanimous consensus of the editorial board, unfit for the presidency."

FCC Pushes Vote on Set-Top Boxes
2 hours ago

"Federal regulators on Thursday delayed a vote on a proposal to reshape the television market by freeing consumers from cable box rentals, putting into doubt a plan that has pitted technology companies against cable television providers. ... The proposal will still be considered for a future vote. But Tom Wheeler, chairman of the F.C.C., said commissioners needed more discussions."

Obama Signs Bill to Fund Government
7 hours ago
SCOTUS to Hear Case on Offensive Trademarks
8 hours ago

"The Supreme Court is taking up a First Amendment clash over the government’s refusal to register offensive trademarks, a case that could affect the Washington Redskins in their legal fight over the team name. The justices agreed Thursday to hear a dispute involving an Asian-American rock band called the Slants, but they did not act on a separate request to hear the higher-profile Redskins case at the same time." Still, any precedent set by the case could have ramifications for the Washington football team.

Bannon Still Collecting Royalties from ‘Seinfeld’
9 hours ago

The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at a little-known intersection of politics and entertainment, in which Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon is still raking in residuals from Seinfeld. Here's the digest version: When Seinfeld was in its infancy, Ted Turner was in the process of acquiring its production company, Castle Rock, but he was under-capitalized. Bannon's fledgling media company put up the remaining funds, and he agreed to "participation rights" instead of a fee. "Seinfeld has reaped more than $3 billion in its post-network afterlife through syndication deals." Meanwhile, Bannon is "still cashing checks from Seinfeld, and observers say he has made nearly 25 times more off the Castle Rock deal than he had anticipated."