With exquisite timing, the Wall Street Journal reports that the widespread surveillance of residents of several European nations occurred with the facilitation of the countries themselves — at least according to U.S. officials. The report emerged less than an hour before the head of the NSA was due to testify before Congress on the agency's surveillance operations.
The massive scale of the data collection — tens of millions of phone calls tracked in France and Spain — elicited an outcry of opposition from those countries and activists in the United States. But now the Journal cites anonymous officials claiming that the NSA only analyzed phone data that had already been gathered by those countries' intelligence agencies.
The U.S. wants to correct the record about the extent of NSA spying but doing so in this case would require it to expose its allies' intelligence operations, which could compromise cooperation in the future as well as ongoing intelligence efforts.
U.S. officials said the Snowden-provided documents had been misinterpreted and actually show phone records that were collected by French and Spanish intelligence agencies, and then shared with the NSA, according to officials briefed on those discussions.
For example, one revelatory slide included in a report from France's Le Monde appears to have been created by the NSA from French data, the unnamed sources claim.
Given the many layers of secrecy surrounding the report and the subject of the report, it's hard to evaluate the accuracy of the claim. There's no question that the report is of political value to the administration and the intelligence agencies, however. As the Journal notes, the unnamed officials indicate that "European collection programs were part of long-standing intelligence sharing arrangements between the U.S. and its closest allies." The United States has an explicit and public intelligence-sharing arrangement with the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, dubbed "Five Eyes." That it would also work with France and Spain, two close allies, isn't a surprise — and tacitly revealing that information at this point is clearly meant to soften a difficult day for the NSA.
Update, 2:30 p.m.: Sure enough, NSA chief Keith Alexander addressed the reports during the hearing. Both the reporters suggesting that millions of phone records had been collected and Edward Snowden "did not understand what they were looking at," Alexander said.
The web tool counts metadata records from around the world and displays the totals in several different formats. ... Our sources include data legally collected as well as data provided to NSA by foreign partners. To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.
"Those screen shots that show — or at least led people to believe that we, NSA, or the United States collected that information is false. And it's false that it was collected on European citizens. It was neither."
This is not the first time that a helpful leak has emerged shortly before a Congressional hearing. A similar leak occurred in August.