Three years ago, John Bolton, the former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, told Congress that he had asked the NSA to reveal to him the identities of 19 American citizens who were caught up in 10 of the NSA’s raw intelligence reports since 9/11.
By law, the agency is prohibited from spying Americans and if the NSA intercepts the names of Americans in the course of a wiretap, the agency is supposed to black out the names prior to distributing its reports to other agencies. But the NSA did not second guess Bolton’s requests and willingly turned over the identities of U.S. citizens caught up in the wiretaps. Last week’s report
The NSA, based in Fort Meade, Maryland, operates under the Department of Defense. It distributes analysis summaries of its intelligence-gathering to a certain number of senior US officials, but it is prohibited from sharing its raw data – transcripts from wiretaps – with anyone. The raw data is prized by intelligence analysts because it provides additional context and more leads than the watered-down summaries.
But it turned out that Bolton, who was nominated by George W. Bush to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his requests to the NSA, was just one of many government officials who learned the identities of Americans caught in NSA intercepts in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, by 2006 the State Department had asked the NSA to unmask the identities of American citizens 500 times since May 2001.
The NSA also disclosed to senior White House officials and other policymakers at federal agencies the names of as many as 10,000 American citizens the agency obtained while purportedly eavesdropping on foreigners. The Americans weren’t involved in any sort of terrorist activity, nor did they pose any sort of threat to national security, but had simply been named while the NSA was conducting wiretaps.
The “NSA received – and fulfilled – between 3,000 and 3,500 requests from other agencies to supply the names of U.S. citizens and officials (and citizens of other countries that help NSA eavesdrop around the world, including Britain, Canada and Australia) that initially were deleted from raw intercept reports,” according to a May 2, 2006 report in Newsweek.
“Sources say the number of names disclosed by NSA to other agencies during this period is more than 10,000. About one third of such disclosures were made to officials at the policymaking level; most of the rest were disclosed to other intel agencies and, perhaps surprisingly, only a small proportion to law-enforcement agencies.”
The NSA had also turned over its raw intelligence to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which used it to spy on Americans suspected of posing a threat, according to a Jan. 1, 2006 report in the Washington Post.
The names of American citizens that are blacked out can be revealed to government officials if they ask for them in writing and only if they’re needed to help the official better understand the context of the intelligence information they were included in.
But that wasn’t the case with Bolton or other government officials and agencies.
‘We typically would ask why” disclosure of an identity was necessary, said Stewart Baker, a former general counsel at the NSA, ”but we wouldn’t try to second-guess” the rationale.
During one routine wiretap, the NSA obtained the name of a state department official whose name had been blacked out when the agency submitted its report to various federal agencies. Bolton’s chief of staff, Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA official, revealed during the confirmation hearings that Bolton had requested that the NSA unmask the unidentified official. Fleitz said that when Bolton found out his identity, he congratulated the official, though it’s unknown why, and by doing so he had violated the NSA’s rules by discussing classified information contained in the wiretap.
In a letter to Lt. General Michael Hayden, then the NSA’s outgoing director, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee’s vice chairman said, “the NSA memorandum forwarding the requested identity to State (Intelligence and Research) included the following restriction: ‘Request no further action be taken on this information without prior approval of NSA.’ I have confirmed with the NSA that the phrase ‘no further action’ includes sharing the requested identity of U.S. persons with any individual not authorized by the NSA to receive the identity.”
“In addition to being troubled that Mr. Bolton may have shared U.S. person identity information without required NSA approval,” Rockefeller wrote, “I am concerned that the reason for sharing the information was not in keeping with Mr. Bolton’s requested justification for the identity in the first place. The identity information was provided to Mr. Bolton based on the stated reason that he needed to know the identity in order to better under the foreign intelligence contained in the NSA report.”
Hayden “subsequently gave a top-secret briefing to Rockefeller and the Intelligence Committee’s GOP chairman, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, about Bolton’s dealings with the NSA,” Newsweek reported on May 26, 2005. Newsweek further reported:
In this briefing, according to Rockefeller’s letter to the Foreign Relations Committee, Hayden allowed Rockefeller and Roberts to review the NSA intercept reports at the center of the Bolton controversy. However, according to Rockefeller, Hayden did not share with Rockefeller and Roberts the names of the Americans that the NSA had provided to Bolton. In all, Rockefeller said, Bolton’s requests for 10 uncensored NSA reports would have involved the unmasking of the identities of “nineteen U.S. persons.”
In his letter, Rockefeller said that based on the briefing he had received from General Hayden, he found “no evidence” that there was anything “improper” about how or why Bolton made his 10 requests for the NSA reports in which American names were uncensored. However, Rockefeller said that he was “troubled” by how Bolton had handled the uncensored NSA information after receiving it.
According to a congressional investigator working with Bolton critics, the substance of the NSA intercept report included a discussion between two foreigners who were discussing how an American official—presumably the one Bolton congratulated—had given them a hard time…Rockefeller indicated that he believes Bolton’s use of the uncensored NSA information to congratulate a State Department official was “not in keeping” with Bolton’s declaration to the NSA that he only wanted the censored information so he could better understand the meaning of the original intelligence report.
Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, said at the time that he was troubled that, other than the questions raised by Rockefeller, Congress and the Senate showed little concern over the NSA’s practices “beyond the specifics involving Bolton.”
“If the National Security Agency provides officials with the identities of Americans on its tapes, what is the use of making secret those names in the first place?” Keefe wrote in an August 10, 2005 op-ed in the New York Times. “We now know that this hasn’t been the case – the agency has been listening to Americans’ phone calls, just not reporting any names. And Bolton’s experience makes clear that keeping those names confidential was a formality that high-ranking officials could overcome by picking up the phone.”
In the summer of 2001, the NSA spent millions of dollars on a publicity campaign to repair its public image by taking the unprecedented step of opening up its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland to reporters, to dispel the myth that the NSA was spying on Americans.
In a July 10, 2001, segment on “Nightline,” host Chris Bury reported that “privacy advocates in the United States and Europe are raising new questions about whether innocent civilians get caught up in the NSA’s electronic web.”
Hayden, who was interviewed by “Nightline,” said it was absolutely untrue that the agency was monitoring Americans who are suspected of being agents of a foreign power without first seeking a special warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“We don’t do anything willy-nilly,” Hayden said. “We’re a foreign intelligence agency. We try to collect information that is of value to American decision-makers, to protect American values, America – and American lives. To suggest that we’re out there, on our own, renegade, pulling in random communications, is – is simply wrong. So everything we do is for a targeted foreign intelligence purpose. With regard to the – the question of industrial espionage, no. Period. Dot. We don’t do that.”
But, when asked “How do we know that the fox isn’t guarding the chicken coop?” Hayden responded by saying that Americans should trust the employees of the NSA.
“They deserve your trust, but you don’t have to trust them,” Hayden said. “We aren’t off the leash, so to speak, guarding ourselves. We have a body of oversight within the executive branch, in the Department of Defense, in the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which is comprised of both government and nongovernmental officials. You’ve got both houses of Congress with – with very active – in some cases, aggressive – intelligence oversight committees with staff members who have an access badge to NSA just like mine.”