Another set of leaked NSA documents has been posted in a team effort by The Intercept and Danish newspaper Dagbladet. This one deals with the NSA's RAMPART-A program, a surveillance effort that depends on the cooperation of involved countries to be successful. As the NSA has always made an effort to point out, its interception of foreign communications is both completely legal and the sort of thing people would expect a national security agency to be doing. (Although, on the latter part, people would normally expect the agency to be doing a little targeting along with the interception, but that's really never been the case across the ocean or domestically.)
It has already been widely reported that the NSA works closely with eavesdropping agencies in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as part of the so-called Five Eyes surveillance alliance. But the latest Snowden documents show that a number of other countries, described by the NSA as “third-party partners,” are playing an increasingly important role – by secretly allowing the NSA to install surveillance equipment on their fiber-optic cables.
The NSA documents state that under RAMPART-A, foreign partners “provide access to cables and host U.S. equipment.” This allows the agency to covertly tap into “congestion points around the world” where it says it can intercept the content of phone calls, faxes, e-mails, internet chats, data from virtual private networks, and calls made using Voice over IP software like Skype.
From what's been gathered here, it appears that the NSA has at least 70 interception points where it harvests communications from overseas cables. But it can't do it alone. It needs the assistance and permission of the affected countries. So, everyone plays nice and pretends they won't use the intercepts to harvest domestic communications and receive vague assurances in return that others won't use the taps to grab each other's communications.
The partnership deals operate on the condition that the host country will not use the NSA's spy technology to collect any data on U.S. citizens. The NSA also agrees that it will not use the access it has been granted to collect data on the host countries' citizens.
But if everyone meant what they said, no one would be grabbing anything. Snowden explains how it actually
"An EU member state like Denmark may give the NSA access to a tapping center on the (unenforceable) condition that NSA doesn't search it for Danes, and Germany may give the NSA access to another on the condition that it doesn't search for Germans," Snowden said.
"Yet the two tapping sites may be two points on the same cable, so the NSA simply captures the communications of the German citizens as they transit Denmark, and the Danish citizens as they transit Germany, all the while considering it entirely in accordance with their agreements."
Presumably, partnering countries do the same sort of workaround, grabbing communications in transit from points located outside of the areas where these "promises" to respect each participant's local communications are in effect. And the NSA (and again, presumably other national security agencies) doesn't even necessarily limit itself to this loophole. Other operations tap into these lines "without the consent or knowledge of the countries that host the cables, or are operated from within the United States with the assistance of American telecommunications companies that have international links."
Because any revelation of domestic spying or NSA partnerships would cause problems back home, partnering countries ask for something in return for allowing the NSA to access its cables: namely, the use of NSA surveillance equipment in order to better siphon off the communications they all promised each other they weren't taking.
The Intercept's article names both Denmark and Germany as being fully complicit with the NSA's RAMPART-A. Germany's mutually-assured-surveillance pact with the NSA seems to be in full force
, which explains the hilariously muted
"we promise to investigate spying" statement weakly delivered a short while ago -- the same one that was hastily amended to "well, we're just going to look into that thing with Angela Merkel's phone." An honest investigation likely would have uncovered plenty of domestic surveillance along with the ongoing complicity of Germany's intelligence services. So, the sort of spying we would almost expect -- on other national leaders -- will get a cursory inspection, while the sort of widespread surveillance of German citizens will be back-burnered and forgotten.
But all this spying is, again, perfectly acceptable, according to the NSA spokesperson:
"The fact that the U.S. government works with other nations, under specific and regulated conditions, mutually strengthens the security of all," said NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines.
SPYING MAKES THE WORLD STRONGER. (Available on coffee mugs and T-shirts at the NSA gift shop.)
"NSA's efforts are focused on ensuring the protection of the national security of the United States, its citizens, and our allies through the pursuit of valid foreign intelligence targets only."
Apparently, there's no way to determine "valid targets" until after
you've swept up all
the data and communications. The NSA again pretends it runs targeted spycraft, ignoring the fact that its own slides tout the massive amount of communications it can access.
RAMPART-A enables the NSA to tap into three terabits of data every second as the data flows across the compromised cables…
The NSA is drinking straight from the fire hose. Sure, it can't feasibly "collect it all" when faced with this massive amount of data, but with multiple programs in place, it's doing everything it can to swallow a great deal of it. But underneath all of the NSA's efforts lies a platform built by complicit nations -- nations that have also bought into the "spying = security" belief system.