US National Security Agency

US National Security Agency wanted to increase snooping powers

Document written before public outcry over Snowden leaks reveals effort to expand powers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 6:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 6:56am

Officials at the National Security Agency, 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 a paper last February laying 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 needs of the NSA 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 concluded.

The paper also outlined some of the agency's other ambitions. They included defeating the cybersecurity practices of adversaries in order to acquire the data the agency needs from "anyone, anytime, 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 "revolutionise" analysis of its vast collections of data to "radically increase operational impact".

Reports based on other documents previously leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the NSA has infiltrated the cable links to Google and Yahoo data centres around the world, leading to protests from company executives and a growing backlash against the NSA in Silicon Valley.

The strategy document, provided by 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 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.

The NSA document, titled "Sigint Strategy 2012-2016", does not make clear what legal or policy changes the agency might seek. 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 said the NSA believed that legal impediments limited its ability to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists inside the United States. Despite an overhaul of national security law in 2008, the officials said, if a terrorism suspect who is under surveillance overseas enters the United States, the agency has to stop monitoring him until it obtains a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"NSA's Sigint strategy is designed to guide investments in future capabilities and close gaps in current capabilities," the agency said. "In an ever-changing technology and telecommunications environment, NSA tries to get in front of issues to better fulfil the foreign-intelligence requirements of the US government."