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A treasure hunt: is Scott Shane hiding the real NSA jewels among GCHQ documents he received from The Guardian and, if so, what are they?  

As diaried by jamess, Scott Shane of the New York Times reported new material about the NSA from documents obtained via the Guardian from Edward Snowden.

Superficially, this was a huge scoop, detailing (amid plenty of legitimate activity) surveillance against UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon and the Climate Change Summit, computer hacking through Tailored Access Operations, and dragnet interception programs called Dishfire, Polar Breeze, Tracfin, Ghosthunter, and Snacks. The NSA has taken hostile action against governments with whom we are not at war, placing itself in the position of making rather than serving national policy. Most damning of all, the Shane article makes it clear that for all the spying, the NSA has done precious little to enhance American security. So much of the spying is focused on friends and ordinary Americans/allies/trading partners that the agency isn't even translating much of the foreign language communications between terrorists, or at least in areas of the world where terrorists are concentrated.

And yet the reaction to the Shane report by Wikileaks, as reported on DemocracyNow [sorry, the transcript is incomplete at the time of this writing; see Joe Pompeo, Yahoo], is that the Shane piece is a "limited hangout," a partial exposure designed to get everything out in a relatively innocuous form and squelch reporting by other news outlets. So the question arises: what is the Shane article missing?

Some excerpts from Shane:  

The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world.
The agency’s Dishfire database — nothing happens without a code word at the N.S.A. — stores years of text messages from around the world, just in case. Its Tracfin collection accumulates gigabytes of credit card purchases. The fellow pretending to send a text message at an Internet cafe in Jordan may be using an N.S.A. technique code-named Polarbreeze to tap into nearby computers. The Russian businessman who is socially active on the web might just become food for Snacks, the acronym-mad agency’s Social Network Analysis Collaboration Knowledge Services, which figures out the personnel hierarchies of organizations from texts.
By many accounts, the agency provides more than half of the intelligence nuggets delivered to the White House early each morning in the President’s Daily Brief ....
[As evidence that the primary focus of NSA spying is economic] The extent of Sigint sharing can be surprising: “N.S.A. may pursue a relationship with Vietnam,” one 2009 G.C.H.Q. document reported. But a recent G.C.H.Q. training document suggests that not everything is shared, even between the United States and Britain. “Economic well-being reporting,” it says, referring to intelligence gathered to aid the British economy, “cannot be shared with any foreign partner.”
 The N.S.A.’s elite Transgression Branch, created in 2009 ...quietly piggybacks on others’ incursions into computers of interest....

In one 2010 hacking operation code-named Ironavenger, for instance, the N.S.A. spied simultaneously on an ally and an adversary.
Venezuela, for instance, was one of six “enduring targets” in N.S.A.’s official mission list from 2007, along with China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Russia. The United States viewed itself in a contest for influence in Latin America with Venezuela’s leader then, the leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who allied himself with Cuba, and one agency goal was “preventing Venezuela from achieving its regional leadership objectives and pursuing policies that negatively impact U.S. global interests.”
An N.S.A. officer in Texas, in other words, was paid each day to peruse the private messages of obscure Venezuelan bureaucrats, hunting for tidbits that might offer some tiny policy edge.
One N.S.A. officer on the Lashkar-e-Taiba beat let slip that some of his eavesdropping turned out to be largely pointless, perhaps because of the agency’s chronic shortage of skilled linguists.

Wikileaks tweeted a harsh response, calling The New York Times a tool of the Pentagon and saying:
Tweet by Wikileaks disparaging Scott Shane NYT story on NSA
So what is missing from the NYT story? One clue might be to follow Wikileaks tweets. So far, the main topic seems to be Stratfor files on the the Philippines.

Another avenue is to look at what NYT competitors have to say. The Guardian live blog is here.  Paul Owens' observations date to about 8:30AM Eastern. On a quick scan, I didn't see anything about the Shane article in Der Spiegel.

So join the hunt! Where in the world is the missing or decontextualized information?  Let's crowdsource some journalism.  

* Bob Swern mentions an article by Ewen MacAskill and James Ball in The Guardian. It looks like it was written with assistance from Scott Shane. On a skim, I don't see anything new in it.  

* Dumbo reports some defects in links/images. I have tried to fix them. If they don't work, they don't work. Sorry.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I learned it would be impossible to know (4+ / 0-)

    Every bit of knowledge in the world by the time I was nine. Apparently the NSA isn't capable of that sort of reflection yet.

    •  "Niemand weet alles / No one knows everything" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Horace Boothroyd III

      These Dutch kids could've told 'em.

      Zelfs al ken je het hele internet
      Net zo goed als het alfabet
      je weet niet alles, je weet gewoon niet alles
      Niemand op de wereld
      die alles weten kan
      er blijven altijd vragen onbeantwoord

      Even knowing the entire Internet
      As well as people know the alphabet
      You wouldn't know everything
      No one in the world can ever know it all
      Some questions will always go unanswered

      The Dutch kids' chorus Kinderen voor Kinderen wishes all the world's children freedom from hunger, ignorance, and war. ♥ ♥ ♥ Forget Neo — The One is Minori Urakawa

      by lotlizard on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 12:28:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  What's missing? The phone CONTENT dragnet... (6+ / 0-)

    ...of domestic lines that's been virtually ongoing for 12 years. (Note his reference to censorship in the story, itself.)  I'll be posting my own diary on this sometime this week.

    On a related note, read the Guardian article, which is supposed to be about the same story, for a fairly good look at the dramatic difference between the two pieces. Shane spends much of his time hyping the value of the NSA's surveillance in Afghanistan, at the expense of every other aspect of the story.

    That's what happens when the NYTi appoints the lead waterboy in the press for the NSA (Shane was the hometown reporter on national security at the Baltimore Sun, prior to getting his gig at the NYT) to run with the story, which has been the case for 6-8 weeks.

    Shane's totally in the proverbial tank. And, yeah, he IS the Pentagon's boy. No bout adoubt it....


    "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

    by bobswern on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 11:36:35 AM PST

    •  Thanks for pointing out Guardian (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoasis, CroneWit, Sandino

      Ewen MacAskill and James Ball, with the title No detail too small.

      I confess that, on a skim, I don't see anything additional in The Guardian.

      •  Read it closely, and then read Shane's much... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        CroneWit, Sandino

        ...lengthier piece where he includes/hypes mountains of info on the NSA's actions in Afghanistan.

        "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

        by bobswern on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 12:07:13 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I will look forward to your diary, Bob (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          CroneWit, Sandino

          If anything, MacAskill's reporting seems more favorable to the NSA than Shane's, since it doesn't get into the hacking of allies, while it does get more deeply into some valuable (if inappropriate) things the NSA does in, for example, stopping drug and human trafficking.

          The only things I see that are really new/interesting are:

          amid the German protestations of outrage over US eavesdropping on Merkel and other Germans, Berlin is using the controversy as leverage for an upgrade to 5-Eyes.

          This allows the NSA to "touch" about 90% of the traffic crossing the UK.

          "GCHQ policy is to treat it pretty much all the same, whether it's content or metadata."

          "It is often unclear whether individual communication elements, particularly content-related metadata (CRI) – information derived from the message body – is content or metadata?

          Gaining access to the huge classified data banks appears to be relatively easy.

          •  Charles... (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            CroneWit, Sandino, LeftOverAmerica

            ....the 1,000-2,000 NSA contractors and employees that have taken up residence at GCHQ locations in Menwith Hill, Bude, Yorkshire, and elsewhere in the UK, spend much of their time sifting through US domestic phone content. They also maintain direct access to the PRISM platform, and the NUCLEON database, which specifically and only contains phone call CONTENT (as noted in either/both Shane's and the MacAskill's piece; I forget if it's just one or both pieces that include this). The MAINWAY database is where the metadata for these phone calls is stored.

            Oh, and all reference to the GCHQ monitoring "fiber optic" lines, by definition, may also include landline phone content, which is converted from copper lines to fiber optic data at most local switching centers in the U.S. (You'll read about the monitoring of PLENTY of "fiber optic" data in most stories on the GCHQ.)

            Both countries circumvent their respective nation's laws by monitoring the other country's phone call content traffic. And, this has been written about in the press for at least close to TEN YEARS. (It's one of three or four ways that phone content traffic's captured, "perfectly legally." And, with DiFi's newest Senate bill, if it's passed, all bets are off, because the Constitution will be meaningless, and warrantless wiretaps will officially prevail; and it's already unofficially prevailing nowadays as far as warrantless wiretapping's concerned, as it is right now.)

            "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

            by bobswern on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 12:32:29 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I think you've illustrated what I said (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              CroneWit, Sandino, bobswern

              First, I do understand the issues, namely
              1) evasion of laws against eavesdropping by outsourcing
              2) lies about whether intercepts include metadata or content
              3) interception of landline calls, which are supposed to require warrants

              But my question is what (or whether) Shane is hiding.

              Yes, his article is longer, so points can get lost. It's far more specific in terms of programs than MacAskill's is.

              But does his exclusive focus on the foreign intelligence gathering mask the domestic eavesdropping implications? Or does it accentuate the potentially far more explosive revelations about listening in on allies and abuse of intelligence for commercial gain?  

              As you say, the abuse of American civil liberties is well-known to those of us who have bothered to pay attention. The shoe that remains to drop is direct proof that NSA is  collecting content from people who are very obviously not national adversaries. Like, say, recordings of phone calls between our president and Malia.

              Until that happens, I think the inappropriate spying on allies is more damaging to the NSA's funding.

              •  There are countless examples of this... (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                " proof that NSA is  collecting content from people who are very obviously not national adversaries..."

                A simple (properly-worded) Google search should provide plenty of instances.

                "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

                by bobswern on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 03:28:08 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  The diary has a number of problems. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, CharlesII, CroneWit, jayden

    For one, the amazonaws link goes to a thumbnail pic that is indecipherable.  If you want to quote a tweet, just blockquote the tweet into the diary.  Also, the stratfor link goes to a search engine but doesn't show us any results.  And I still have no idea, from reading this, what wikileaks' complaint about the shane article is.

    •  Thanks, Dumbo (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo, CroneWit, Sandino

      Yes, I am having trouble sizing the Tweet photo. I may or may not be able to solve that problem.

      The search link worked when the diary was posted. I am replacing it with the TinyURL they provided. Let's see if that works.

      Sorry about the defects and thanks for reporting them.

    •  As for what Wikileaks complaint is... (4+ / 0-)

      That's the question posed by the diary. They haven't said explicitly. But they have issued a very strongly-worded response to Shane's article that suggests that it has somehow buried the real story.

      That intrigues me. Figuring out such puzzles is exactly the sort of thing that citizens inside countries that are not entirely free have to do in order to stay informed.

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