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Tap on Merkel Provides Peek at Vast Spy Net

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by tulianr, Nov 1, 2013.

  1. tulianr

    tulianr Don Quixote de la Monkey

    It was not obvious to the National Security Agency a dozen years ago that Angela Merkel, a rising star as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, was a future chancellor of Germany. But that did not matter.

    The N.S.A., in a practice that dates back to the depths of the Cold War and that has never ended, was recording her conversations and those of a range of leaders in Germany and elsewhere, storing them in databases that could be searched later, if the need arose.

    How the N.S.A. continued to track Ms. Merkel as she ascended to the top of Germany’s political apparatus illuminates previously undisclosed details about the way the secret spy agency casts a drift net to gather information from America’s closest allies. The phone monitoring is hardly limited to the leaders of countries like Germany, and also includes their top aides and the heads of opposing parties. It is all part of a comprehensive effort to gain an advantage over other nations, both friend and foe.

    What the United States has learned from Ms. Merkel’s calls since 2002, the year when surveillance on her began, according to a database described last week in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, remains unknown. But no one has denied that she was being monitored.

    In testimony to Congress on Tuesday, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., gave only the roughest sketch of the size of the N.S.A.’s surveillance program, but suggested that the leader of the United States’ most powerful European ally was a single fish in a very big sea.

    “We’re talking about a huge enterprise here with thousands and thousands of individual requirements,” he said, using a phrase that appeared to mean individual surveillance targets.

    The N.S.A. tries to gather cellular and landline phone numbers — often obtained from American diplomats — for as many foreign officials as possible. The contents of the phone calls are stored in computer databases that can regularly be searched using keywords.

    “They suck up every phone number they can in Germany,” said one former intelligence official.

    The databases are different from those housing telephone “metadata” — information about phone numbers on each end of a call and the call’s length — to find links between terrorism suspects. “Metadata is only valuable if you are trying to track the activities of a terrorist or a spy,” said the former American intelligence official.

    By comparison, allied leaders are low-level priorities. In the “National Intelligence Priorities Framework,” a matrix approved by the president and updated regularly, information on members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the whereabouts of nuclear weapons in Pakistan or North Korea, or the conversations of nuclear scientists in Iran are all front-burner intelligence issues. Ranked just below them are questions about the leadership of adversaries, like Russia, China or Iran, or the state of their economies.

    At the N.S.A.’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., analysts pore over the transcripts of the phone calls and write reports, stamped “top secret,” that are distributed to officials across the government. The most intense interest in the reports is at the State Department, the Treasury, the other intelligence agencies and the National Security Council, former officials said.

    But there are still limits to how many of the phone conversations can be stored, and for how long. Some phone conversations are kept in the databases for weeks, some for months, and some are destroyed almost immediately after they are determined to have little intelligence value.

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