The National Security Agency (NSA) that’s often characterized in the news these days hardly resembles the one that I have served for more than 35 years as a collector, an analyst, a manager and a senior leader.
The current pace of technological change is unprecedented. This has led not only to new threats but also to new capabilities, many of which have surprised the American people. But I know firsthand that this tremendous power is held in check by a multilayered system of oversight and accountability.
The data that the NSA processes is turned into foreign intelligence that is essential to national security. This helps the agency determine where adversaries are located as well as what they’re planning, what individuals or groups they’re working with and what weapons they’re using.
How Does the Process Work?
All of the NSA’s intelligence activities stem from valid foreign intelligence requirements and are run through a process managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. When the NSA receives those requirements, analysts identify the foreign entities that have the information, research how they communicate and determine the best way to access those communications.
Analysts identify selectors — such as email addresses and phone numbers — that help isolate the communications of the foreign entity and then assign those to collection systems. The systems target communications links that contain the selectors — or are to and from areas likely to contain the selectors — of the foreign intelligence interest.
Today’s communications flow over satellite links, microwave towers and fiber-optic cables. Terrorists, weapons proliferators and other foreign intelligence targets use these commercial infrastructures and services; when a target uses one to communicate, we work to find, collect and report on it. Contrary to popular claims, we do not collect and exploit a class of communications or services that would sweep up communications that do not contain information of bona fide foreign intelligence interest.
We work with partners and allies to meet our mission’s goals, and in every case, those joint operations must comply with U.S. law and with the applicable laws under which partners and allies operate. We report our activities to other executive-branch organizations charged with oversight, to Congress and, when appropriate, to the court.
The Checks and Balances of NSA Activities
Limitations on our activities protect the privacy of all people and, in particular, any incidentally acquired communications of U.S. persons. The protections are applied at every possible step. In addition, the NSA works to remove as much extraneous data as early in the process as possible; the communications of any person who is not a foreign intelligence target are of no use to us.
Each day, the NSA dedicates itself to reconciling complex legal regimes, the operational practices of our targets and the rapidly changing technology across a telecommunications environment that is one of the most complex systems ever devised. We can’t stop the advance of technology, but we make every effort to use technology to improve our intelligence while simultaneously protecting privacy.
We are keenly aware of the power of these tools in the hands of the state, and many of those tools have been disclosed in the press. What has not been disclosed is the overlay of law, regulation, policy, procedure, technical safeguards, training, culture and ethos — all of which govern the use of the tools. We have a great responsibility and a great desire to do this work exactly right. On rare occasions, individuals or systems may fall short, but rules, oversight and core values always prevail.
Our maxim is that one error is one too many; we strive for perfection in what we do.