Officials at the US National Security Agency (NSA), intent on maintaining the agency’s dominance in intelligence collection, pledged last year to push to expand its surveillance powers, according to a top secret strategy document.
In February last year, a paper laid out the four-year strategy for the NSA’s signals intelligence operations, which include the agency’s eavesdropping and communications data collection around the world, agency officials set an objective to “aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age.”
Written as an agency mission statement with broad goals, the five-page document said that existing US laws were not adequate to meet the NSA’s needs to conduct broad surveillance in what it cited as “the golden age of SIGINT,” or signals intelligence.
“The interpretation and guidelines for applying our authorities, and in some cases the authorities themselves, have not kept pace with the complexity of the technology and target environments, or the operational expectations levied on NSA’s mission,” the document said.
Using sweeping language, the paper outlined some of the agency’s other ambitions. They included defeating the cybersecurity practices of adversaries to acquire the data the agency needs from “anyone, any time, anywhere.” The agency also said it would try to decrypt or bypass codes that keep communications secret by influencing “the global commercial encryption market through commercial relationships,” human spies and intelligence partners in other countries. It also talked of the need to “revolutionize” analysis of its vast collections of data to “radically increase operational impact.”
The strategy document, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was written at a time when the agency was at the peak of its powers and the scope of its surveillance operations was still secret. Since then, Snowden’s revelations have changed the political landscape.
Prompted by a public outcry over the NSA’s domestic operations, the agency’s critics in the US Congress have been pushing to limit, rather than expand, its ability to routinely collect the phone and e-mail records of millions of Americans, while foreign leaders have protested reports of virtually unlimited NSA surveillance overseas, even in allied nations. Several inquiries are underway in Washington; General Keith Alexander, the NSA’s longest-serving director, has announced plans to retire; and the White House has offered proposals to disclose more information about the agency’s domestic surveillance activities.
The NSA document, titled SIGINT Strategy 2012-2016, does not make clear what legal or policy changes the agency might seek. The NSA’s powers are determined variously by Congress, executive orders and the nation’s secret intelligence court, and its operations are governed by layers of regulations. While asserting that the agency’s “culture of compliance” would not be compromised, NSA officials argued that they needed more flexibility, according to the paper.
Senior intelligence officials, responding to questions about the document, said that the NSA believed that legal impediments limited its ability to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists inside the US. Despite an overhaul of US security law in 2008, the officials said, if a terrorism suspect who is under surveillance overseas enters the US, the agency has to stop monitoring him until it obtains a warrant from the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.