On Monday 4th, the New York Times reported that the National Security Agency has “quietly” shut down a controversial phone records surveillance program revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
The claim was made by a senior Republican congressional aide who told the newspaper that the Trump administration had stopped using the program, which analyses the domestic call and text logs of American citizens, due to technical problems.
On Twitter Snowden hailed the news as a “victory”, while Intercept journalist Glen Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story to international acclaim, took the story at face value. Neither of them raised the obvious question – is the “shut down” of this program merely a smokescreen to continue spying on American phones under new or different secretive programs?
I used to take a victory lap every time one of these stories came out. It felt good to see history vindicate my decision to expose the government’s wrongdoing. Nowadays I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to speak up. If only I hadn’t been so afraid. https://t.co/RiVl6cdwlz
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 5, 2019
Since then, further doubt was cast on the NYT report when NSA chief General Paul Nakasone refused to confirm or deny the story. But he did tell a major security conference on Wednesday that the agency was still “in a deliberative process” about whether to use a revamped version of the vast database of American phone records.
All of this, however, is an elaborate ruse. According to two former top NSA officials interviewed by INSURGE, there is no credible reason to believe that NSA phone surveillance has truly been shut down.
What shut down?
When the NYT story broke, I reached out to two former senior NSA officials, Russ Tice and Thomas Drake, to find out what they thought.
Both of them told me that the NSA’s shut down of this particular program did not imply an end to domestic phone record surveillance, but quite the opposite — that the program had been superseded by superior technology.
According to Russ Tice, a former senior NSA intelligence analyst who had previously worked with the US Air Force, Office of Naval Intelligence and Defense Intelligence Agency, the latest claim that the NSA was rolling up phone surveillance beggared belief.
“Why would anyone believe a bloody word of what NSA says about their mass domestic surveillance programs?” said Tice, who was the first NSA whistleblower who exposed unlawful surveillance and wiretaps of American citizens as early as May 2005.
“They have lied repeatedly in the past and they are likely lying now. They have been collecting meta data and content, word-for-word, both voice and text, for some time now.”
I asked Tice how certain he was that the NSA was still conducting phone surveillance of Americans in the United States. “Of course NSA is still conducting phone and computer comms surveillance and yes, ‘wider programs’ go on and a new massive program that is more efficient is likely to have already been implemented,” he told me.
The real reason the current program has become defunct is because there is now better technology for more advanced surveillance.
“If anything, they no longer need this particular program to parse the card catalog — meta data — and can mine the content data directly with enhanced algorithms and processing and strapping. And when there is no pushback capability, congress is at the mercy of NSA to inform them on NSA’s abuses.”