NSA revealed: When a spy agency comes under public scrutiny

For years, the National Security Agency did its spy work out of public view. Now, with revelations and allegations coming almost daily, that’s no longer true for the NSA.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Demonstrators march through Washington towards the National Mall to demand that Congress investigate the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013.

For an intelligence agency that’s supposed to be as secret as possible – gathering bits and pieces of electronic signals by the billions, trying to weave them into some kind of pattern essential to US national security – the National Security Agency itself is getting a huge amount of public probing.

European leaders are sputtering over reports that their own phones have been tapped. Thousands of people gathered in Washington Saturday to protest spying in the United States and abroad. Ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden keeps dribbling out new revelations from his temporary asylum in Russia.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin – primary author of the Patriot Act – says he’ll introduce a bill creating more transparency and accountability at the NSA. “Had Congress known that the Patriot Act had been used to collect metadata, the bill would have never been passed,” he told the National Journal recently.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan said European outrage at US intelligence-gathering misses a more important point.

“This whole notion that we're going to go after each other on what is really legitimate protection of nation-state interests I think is disingenuous,” he said.

"If the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping champagne corks," Rep. Rogers said. "It's a good thing. It keeps the French safe. It keeps the US safe. It keeps our European allies safe.”

To get the French – or anybody else – to accept that view would take a lot of convincing these days.

Der Spiegel magazine reported Saturday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone had been listed by the NSA's Special Collection Service (SCS) since 2002. Having grown up in the former East Germany, where the secret police (the “Stasi”) kept a repressive eye on everybody, this is a particularly sensitive subject for Ms. Merkel.

The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported Sunday that National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander had briefed Obama on the operation against Merkel in 2010.

“Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue,” the newspaper quoted a high-ranking NSA official as saying.

Bild and Spiegel described a hive of spy activity on the fourth floor of the US embassy in central Berlin, a stone's throw from the government quarter, from which the United States kept tabs on Merkel and other German officials.

Spiegel cited a classified 2010 document indicating that US intelligence had 80 high-tech surveillance offices worldwide in cities including Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Geneva, and Frankfurt.

Senior German officials are coming to Washington this week to sort out the intelligence and diplomatic kerfuffle, CNN reports. Among them will be the heads of Germany's foreign and domestic intelligence services and the coordinator of the federal intelligence services.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last week had to respond to another report making news in Europe.

"Recent articles published in the French newspaper Le Monde contain inaccurate and misleading information regarding US foreign intelligence activities," he said in a statement. "The allegation that the National Security Agency collected more than 70 million 'recordings of French citizens' telephone data' is false.”

Meanwhile, the Justice Department says for the first time that it intends to use information gained from one of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance programs against an accused terrorist, setting the stage for a likely Supreme Court test of the Obama administration's approach to national security.

The high court so far has turned aside challenges to the law on government surveillance on the grounds that people who bring such lawsuits have no evidence they are being targeted.

Jamshid Muhtorov was accused in 2012 of providing material support to the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an Uzbek terrorist organization that, authorities say, was engaging NATO coalition and US forces in Afghanistan.

According to court papers in the case, the FBI investigated Muhtorov after his communications with an overseas website administrator for the IJU.

In a court filing Friday, the government said it intends to offer into evidence in Muhtorov's case "information obtained or derived from acquisition of foreign intelligence information conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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