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Inside the “Electronic Omnivore”: New Leaks Show NSA Spying on U.N., Climate Summit, Text Messaging

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As Edward Snowden seeks clemency from the United States, The New York Times has revealed new details about how the National Security Agency is spying on targets ranging from the United Nations to foreign governments to global text messages. We are joined by New York Times reporter Scott Shane, who reports that the NSA has emerged “as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.” The Times article reveals how the NSA intercepted the talking points of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ahead of a meeting with President Obama in April and mounted a major eavesdropping effort focused on the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007. The Times also reveals the existence of an NSA database called Dishfire that “stores years of text messages from around the world, just in case.” Another NSA program called Tracfin “accumulates gigabytes of credit card purchases.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration is rejecting calls to grant clemency to NSA leaker Edward Snowden just days after Snowden asked for international help to lobby the United States to drop the charges against him. In a letter given to a German lawmaker last week, Snowden wrote, quote, “Speaking the truth is not a crime. I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United States will abandon this harmful behavior,” he wrote.

On Sunday, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer appeared on ABC This Week and was questioned by host George Stephanopoulos about Snowden’s appeal.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are there any conditions under which President Obama would consider clemency?

DAN PFEIFFER: None that have been discussed.



GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s not on the table?

DAN PFEIFFER: I—not that’s been discussed. He—look, Mr. Snowden violated U.S. law. There—and—and our belief has always been that he should return to the United States and face—and face justice.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer speaking on Sunday.

Meanwhile, The New York Times published a front-page piece Sunday headlined “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA,” revealing many new details about secret NSA programs and the agency’s overseas surveillance capabilities, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

New York Times journalist Scott Shane writes, quote, “From thousands of classified documents, the National Security Agency emerges as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.”

The New York Times piece reveals how the NSA intercepted the talking points of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ahead of a meeting with President Obama in April and mounted a major eavesdropping effort focused on the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007.

The documents also detail how the U.S. spied on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and gained the ability to scan the stream of international communications and pluck out messages tied to the supreme leader.

The NSA has also been active in Latin America. The Times reveals the NSA aided the Colombian army by monitoring movements of the FARC rebel group using eavesdropping gear aboard a Defense Department plane flying 60,000 feet over Colombia.

Venezuela was listed as one of six “enduring targets” by the NSA, along with China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Russia. Internal NSA documents describe the agency’s goal as, quote, “preventing Venezuela from achieving its regional leadership objectives and pursuing policies that negatively impact U.S. global interests,” unquote.

The Times also reveals the existence of an NSA database called Dishfire that, quote, “stores years of text messages from around the world, just in case,” unquote. Another NSA program called Tracfin, quote, “accumulates gigabytes of credit card purchases,” unquote.

These are just some of the revelations in Sunday’s New York Times piece based on the leaks of Edward Snowden. Joining us now is the author of the piece, New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane, joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Maryland.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Scott. First of all, talk about how you got all of this information, all of these leaks of Edward Snowden.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, what happened was, Edward Snowden did not give The New York Times any of his documents, in part because he was upset that the Times had held a story about NSA’s warrantless wiretapping for a year back in 2004, eventually published it the next year in 2005. But he did give, as people know, a lot of documents to Laura Poitras, to Glenn Greenwald and to others, and The Guardian was given a large collection of about 50,000 documents that were labeled as GCHQ—that’s Government Communications Headquarters—which is the British equivalent of NSA. And GCHQ worked so closely with NSA that probably about a third of those documents are NSA documents. The Guardian shared those 50,000 documents with us at The New York Times, and some of us at the Times have spent the last couple of months going through them.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what most shocked you by the documents you’ve gotten that are from the National Security Agency. We’ve gone through just some of the points. You begin your piece with Ban Ki-moon last April. Why don’t you start there?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, I wrote—I used to be with The Baltimore Sun, and I wrote a series on NSA back in 1995, so I can’t say that I was not shocked by any of this, but I think perhaps one of the most interesting questions these documents raise is the—you know, I referred to the agency as an omnivore. They’re under pressure from policymakers, from White House, from CIA, from DOD, from the State Department, to sort of be prepared to supply information on almost anything. A crisis breaks out tomorrow in a, you know, unexpected place, and NSA is under heavy pressure to produce intelligence from that place. And that, combined with a big budget and secrecy, has, I think, created a kind of—you know, what actually Secretary of State John Kerry called last week “automatic pilot,” just a sort of automatic effort to snatch up any kind of electronic communication there is around the world.

And I thought the Ban Ki-moon example was an interesting one. Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the U.N., very friendly to the United States, obviously a very public man, doesn’t—you know, doesn’t hide what he thinks. He was coming in April to the White House to—for a routine meeting with President Obama, and NSA collected his talking points before the meeting. Now, the White House won’t say whether President Obama was given and read those talking points in advance of the meeting, but, you know, it’s—if you think about it, it’s kind of hard to imagine that those talking points would contain anything terribly shocking. And, of course, there is the political cost of being caught essentially eavesdropping on the secretary-general of the U.N. That cost has now been paid. So, I think, you know, as long as they could remain secret about all this stuff, NSA’s instinct was: collect everything. You know, if the White House or whoever else in the government wants to read it, fine; if not, fine. But now I think the administration has a very difficult decision to make about balancing the political cost of spying, particularly on allies, on friendly countries, friendly people, against what—you know, what they might glean from that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Scott Shane, national security reporter for The New York Times. His front-page article, “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA.” This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane, his front-page article headlined “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA.” Can you talk about some of the programs that you outline, from Polarbreeze to Dishfire, to the NSA’s SNACK, Social Network Analysis Collaboration Knowledge Services, Scott?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, one of the things that you find out going through these documents is at first they’re kind of baffling, because NSA, like most intelligence agencies, talks about everything in terms of code words. So, every program has a code name, and usually the code name reveals nothing about the program. And so, it takes a long time to sort of learn—like learning another language, it takes a long time to make sense out of any of this.

Dishfire, it turns out, is a program—it’s actually a database where text messages sent by cellphones around the world are collected and put into this Dishfire database. From the bits and pieces you can pick up from the documents, it appears to contain text messages in many languages, going back for many years. And there are documents that specifically say it’s useful for going back in time. If you find someone who turns up of interest, somebody who you think might be a suspected terrorist or somebody involved in nuclear weapons trade, or perhaps, you know, a Chinese diplomat of interest, you can go back at NSA into this Dishfire database and run some numbers through it and maybe come up with some text messages sent by that person in the past.

Polarbreeze is just mentioned in one document. It’s a—it’s a method by which somebody who is an American agent, who is using—appears to be using perhaps a phone in an Internet cafe, may in fact be sort of sucking out the contents or monitoring the exchanges on a nearby computer.

So, there are just hundreds and hundreds of these programs under various code names. And they’re—you know, they’ve all remained pretty much secret until Edward Snowden revealed all these documents starting last summer.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, TAO, the Tailored Access Operations, where the NSA—a division of the NSA breaks into computers around the world, sometimes leaving spyware after they leave?

SCOTT SHANE: I mean, that is clearly a division of NSA that’s increasingly important. When you think about what’s happened to NSA, as I mentioned in the article, CIA, human spying, has really not changed over the years. You try to recruit somebody to spy at the CIA just as people did hundreds—hundreds of years ago. But NSA, of course, has been transformed along with the kind of information revolution of the last 20 years—the rise of the Internet, the advance of email, the proliferation of personal computers and, most recently, the proliferation of smartphones.

So, TAO, Tailored Access Operations, they break into these computers around the world. They basically are very, very skilled hackers, and they—excuse me—they break in and still secrets from computers. They also, you know, plant Trojan software on computers—just like any hackers, but in a very organized fashion. Many countries—of course, the Chinese are very good at this—are doing this these days. They seem to be, I’d say, an increasingly important sort of method or division of collection for the NSA.

We also discovered a branch of TAO called Transgression. And the Transgression team does something quite interesting. They look for other countries or other hackers around the world that are breaking into computers that are of interest to NSA. And then they essentially follow those hackers in to the target computers. So, it’s a strange—it’s kind of like burglars who go around the neighborhood looking for open windows and doors that the burglars ahead of them have left, and then go in through those open windows and doors. And that’s sort of a twofer for the NSA, because they learn about the other countries’ hacking capabilities and they get to collect information from the target computers in a third country.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, after you published your piece, WikiLeaks tweeted, quote, “”NYTimes does NSA spoiler story, gutting over a dozen serious stories from rivals; justifies using Inman.” The last part of that tweet refers to former NSA chief Bobby Inman. In your article, you quote his recommendation to his colleagues at the NSA who are embroiled in the spying scandal, saying—this is what Inman said—”My advice would be to take everything you think Snowden has and get it out yourself. It would certainly be a shock to the agency. But bad news doesn’t get better with age. The sooner they get it out and put it behind them, the faster they can begin to rebuild.” Respond to both parts, what WikiLeaks said about the piece and what Inman said about just get it all out now.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, to start with Bobby Inman, he was NSA director from 1977 to 1981. One of the reasons I called him was that he was NSA director after the Senate’s Church Committee revealed what many people certainly consider to be abuses by NSA back in the mid-'70s. That was when thousands of Americans were on NSA watchlists, including civil rights activists, anti-Vietnam War activists and so on. So he has—he was actually in office and worked on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was the reform imposed in 1978 by Congress on NSA. So he's sort of been down this road before. And his advice to NSA, as you mentioned, was to sort of get everything out there, stop the drip, drip, drip of revelations, since there are still thousands and thousands of documents that have not been discussed by the media, and a lot of media organizations have them now. He said, you know, sort of get it out there and try to get this behind you; go ahead and have the debate and decide on what happens from there. Whether NSA is going to take that advice is unclear. It’s true that the Director of National Intelligence Office has been putting up documents online in recent weeks that it never would have considered putting up before the Snowden revelations, so they’re taking at least some of that advice.

On the WikiLeaks tweet, I’m not sure I understood the point.

AMY GOODMAN: I think his point is it’s sort of what Bobby Inman said, just get it all out in one article a little bit the way WikiLeaks’ information was gotten out. I think one of the impacts of the Snowden leaks, the documents he released to Laura Poitras and to Glenn Greenwald, are how slowly they’re coming out in these in-depth pieces all over the world, you know, whether we’re talking about Angela Merkel—it’s not that they didn’t have this information before, but it’s just coming out, the German chancellor, has caused an uproar in Germany. In fact, right now they’re asking perhaps Edward Snowden to either come to Germany or somehow testify as they investigate this further. You know, everything that’s happened in Brazil, with Dilma Rousseff not coming to the United States for a state visit because of the Globo piece that Glenn Greenwald also co-authored. But not summarizing, but doing in-depth reporting on each of these revelations.

SCOTT SHANE: Yeah, well, I think—you know, to compare what we’ve done here in the story that ran yesterday with WikiLeaks, I think there is a difference. And it’s a really interesting debate that’s going on about journalism these days. We went to the NSA and the DNI’s Office, Director of National Intelligence Office, some time ago with—I went to them with many of the points that I intended to use in my story and essentially gave them the chance to respond or to make an argument that some of this would be too damaging to national security, would be dangerous to either individuals or to programs. And after extensive discussions, we did take out some points, some details, from the story that ran. WikiLeaks, generally speaking, has sort of put stuff out there without—you know, sort of unexpurgated.

I have to say that from my observation, from my conversations with The Guardian, I think everybody who’s gotten these documents has been somewhat selective in putting them out. That applies to Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian itself, The Washington Post. I think they—you know, I think everybody recognizes that there’s a difference between important information the public should have and information that’s perhaps less newsworthy and could do real damage to important intelligence programs that, you know, could, among other things, prevent a terrorist attack.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me end with this question. We just have a minute. James Clapper, head of national intelligence, clearly lied to Congress when he says the U.S. wasn’t spying on Americans. The White House is still pushing for the prosecution of Snowden, and yet no prosecutions of NSA officials or intelligence officials, like Clapper, have been discussed. What about that?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, there’s clearly a big contradiction that has not been resolved between President Obama saying that he welcomes the debate that we’re now having about NSA, about surveillance domestically, overseas, and the prospect of a long prison term for Edward Snowden if he comes back to the United States. So, you know, it’s—I think it’s—it’s pretty clear, I think it’s fair to say, that Snowden broke the law. It’s also pretty clear to a lot of members of Congress that there’s—that he started a debate that is quite important to sort of the future of the intelligence agencies and to American democracy. How you sort that out, you know, I guess we’ll find out over the next months and maybe even years.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, I want to thank you very much for joining us. And, of course, he says—Edward Snowden says that he was exposing the fact that the U.S. government itself was breaking the law. Scott Shane is national security reporter for The New York Times. His front-page article is headlined “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA.” We’ll link to it at When we come back, a broadcast exclusive: A Pakistani-American journalist returns to Pakistan to look at the effects of drone attacks on the ground. Stay with us.

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