An draft internal Pentagon report suggests that Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers revealed to filmmakers the name of a special operations planner who participated in the raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden even though the head of the Special Operations Command, Adm. Eric Olson, had specifically asked that the man's name and the fact of his participation in the raid not be revealed.

The report, about information provided by the government to Zero Dark Thirty's writer and director, concludes that no "classified" or sensitive special operations tactics, techniques and procedures were given to the "Hollywood executives" by Vickers or by anyone else. Still, at several points, senior Special Operations Command flag officers expressed concern about the filmmakers' access....  More»


In late May of 2011, I received an unusual call from Doug Wilson, the undersecretary of defense for public affairs.

He wanted to introduce me to Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning writer of the Hurt Locker. Boal, he said, was working on a new film about the manhunt that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Why me?

And yes, I asked that.

He told me it was because I had reported on the Joint Special Operations Command, and had written about the raid for National Journal, so Wilson thought the connection would be mutually beneficial.

Wilson sent me Boal's contact info.

I met him twice, once in Washington, and once in Los Angeles, later that summer.

At no point did Wilson ask me to talk to Boal about the bin Laden raid, although I assumed that the Pentagon believed that, if I did discuss the subject, my perspective would be somewhat favorable to their point...  More»

June 5, 2013, at 9:58 PM

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald has published what appears to be a top secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over to the National Security Agency all telephone call records for all American customers in real time. The document bears the classification "TOP SECRET//SI//NO FORN, indicating that it deals with signals intelligence and cannot be shared with foreign countries....  More»


When CIA Director Leon Panetta ebulliently thanked members of SEAL Team Six at an agency ceremony honoring participants in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, he was not aware that the CIA's public affairs shop had allowed writer Mark Boal to attend, an associate of Panetta's said today.

A report published by the Project for Government Oversight implied that Panetta knowingly disclosed classified information to someone who was not cleared to hear it because Panetta had endorsed the project that Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow had proposed.

But the associate, who asked not to be identified because the report deals with classified information, said...  More»

June 6, 2013, at 8:52 AM

All through the night, the National Security Council worked with the intelligence community to come up with a formal response to Glenn Greenwald's story in the Guardian about NSA telephone record collection.

A senior government official sends along the combined talking points:...  More»

June 6, 2013, at 11:13 AM

While Bradley Manning's disclosures to WikiLeaks did not appreciably harm national security, the government decided early on to use his case as a warning. The government absolutely has a stake in making sure that government employees don't feel free to share classified information because they disagree with a policy. But Manning's prosecution and treatment go well beyond anything reasonable. I suspect that the size and scope of his disclosures contributed to the decision to prosecute him to the hilt, as did the explicit and available evidence that he intended to disclose classified information to the world in order to directly influence policy. He is now a martyr of sorts, absolutely guilty of a felony, but being treated as a traitor, something he does not resemble....  More»


Now that we have irrefutable proof that the National Security Agency collects and stores all of Verizon's telephone records, before we can use the "s" word — "spy" — we ought to get a better sense of what the agency, which is charged, you should know, with foreign intelligence collection, uses it for.

Of course, the rules are classified. They're probably classified at a higher level than the document provided to The Guardian because they're part of a specific compartmented NSA program that, government officials say, bears the code name "RAGTIME....  More»


Just got this statement from the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers, and the ranking Democrat, Dutch Ruppersberger. They contend that the NSA's collection programs are legal because Congress knows about them and the courts sanction them, and that they're necessary. It does not provide any additional information on how the government uses the data it collects and stores. How and when? It may be hard for the government to answer, but I suspect it will not get away with evasion....  More»


Ambinder is co-author of a new book about government secrecy and surveillance, Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry.


Analysts at the National Security Agency can now secretly access real-time user data provided by as many as 50 American companies, ranging from credit rating agencies to internet service providers, two government officials familiar with the arrangements said.

Several of the companies have provided records continuously since 2006, while others have given the agency sporadic access, these officials said. These officials disclosed the number of participating companies in order to provide context for a series of disclosures...  More»


This is an excerpt from Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady. Over the next few weeks, we'll be running a series of NSA-related excerpts from the book here on The Compass.


In the early part of 2000, the National Security Agency was "up" on a known al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen. It had intercepted cell phone calls between a known terrorist and persons unknown in San Diego. Because the conversations were not themselves evidence of terrorist plots, and because the identities and locations of the persons inside the United States were not known, the NSA did not have the probable cause necessary to seek a...  More»

June 7, 2013, at 11:40 PM

What exactly is PRISM? How does it work? Who uses it?

Let's assume that the companies whose data is sucked in by a National Security Agency tool called PRISM are denying their knowledge of the word and its associations in good faith. And let us also accept their denials that they've given someone at the NSA "direct access" to their servers.

So where are we?

There are many types of nicknames and special words that the NSA uses.

Some refer to collection tools. Some refer to data processing tools.

Each data processing tool, collection platform, mission and source for raw intelligence is given a specific numeric signals activity/address designator, or a SIGAD....  More»


This is an excerpt from Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady. Over the next few weeks, we'll be running a series of NSA-related excerpts from the book here on The Compass.


A dozen years after 9/11, former NSA director Michael Hayden, now retired, remains accessible. He answers questions sent to his AOL email address. "Can the UK task the U.S. with listening to British citizens? Can the U.S. task the Brits with collecting on U.S. citizens?"

"Absolutely not," he replies.

"Does the NSA maintain a database of potential political undesirables in the event of martial law in the U....  More»


One of NSA contractor Edward Snowden's more stunning claims is that a single individual has the ability to eavesdrop on anyone in the world, and that he could access and download information about all of the C.I.A's station chiefs and undercover case officers.

If true, it means that the system the NSA has built to connect analysts with the data it collects and distributes is both extremely powerful, well beyond what is publicly known, and also, at the same quite, brittle, if it can truly be subject to single-point failures.

I don't know if Snowden's claim is accurate....  More»

June 12, 2013, at 2:44 PM

The National Security Agency is now infamous, perhaps, for its global signals intelligence mission. But the agency, since its inception, has had many other important national security functions under its very large umbrella. Here are six:

1. The NSA generates and distributes all nuclear weapon unlock and launch codes. In a secure, hardened, and largely underground tank of sorts near Finksberg, Maryland, workers at the NSA's "Key Support Central Facility" preside over an automated process that produces and packages physical keys, transmits encryption algorithms for systems that can be coded "over the air," and keeps a log of all communication security violations. Yes, it has a website. There is a back-up classified key support facility in the western United States....  More»


This is an excerpt from Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady. Over the next few weeks, we'll be running a series of NSA-related excerpts from the book here on The Compass.


The effectiveness of the special programs of the NSA is a mystery. There are a couple of cases where they provided real assistance to investigators. But the FBI claims that early on the NSA added needless complications to the bureau's efforts to determine whether sleeper cells actually existed inside the United States. It was difficult to segregate data that came from the special programs from data that came from normal NSA FISA...  More»

June 16, 2013, at 2:20 AM

Before 9/11, if the NSA was in close pursuit of a terrorist who wanted to do harm to the United States, and that terrorist happened to book an airline that was owned by a U.S company, the agency was legally obligated to black out the name of the airline from any and all reports it sent on to the FBI. Why? As Kurt Eichenwald, who has written cogently about NSA data collection, points out, the NSA had to minimize, or excise, any incidental information about U.S. citizens, corporations, or legal residents that its analysts found.

In practice, the NSA would probably have found a way to verbally alert the FBI — its forced blindness was not supposed to be dumb — but minimization rules created a lot of procedural hurdles.

A former FBI agent who worked with the NSA before and after September 11 remembers the types of tips that counter-terrorism...  More»


A rare Sunday afternoon statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responds to news reports that Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) was told in a Congressional briefing that the NSA could listen to Americans' phone calls without a warrant:...  More»


This is the first in a series of posts about leaking classified information in America. My aim is to add some context to the news of the day, to show a bit of continuity with history, and to try to assess what happens next.

Modern presidential press management traces its lineage to the failure of Woodrow Wilson to tend to the journalists who followed him as he crafted the League of Nations Treaty in Versailles.

The Bob Woodward of the time was a bombastic dandy named Herbert Swope, who wrote for the New York World.

The sojourn to France was Swope's first big assignment, and he couldn't comprehend the restrictions the White House had placed on the press corps — and why the press corps seemed so damned compliant. (Does this sound similar?)

As John Maxwell Hamilton chronicled in Journalism's Roving Eye, a magisterial look at foreign reporting,...  More»

June 18, 2013, at 9:17 PM

Michael Hastings was the type of national security reporter I didn't have the guts to be.

"A dick?"

I guess — well, yes. A dick. A dick to those in power. Fearless. Someone who didn't care what others thought of him.

I had given the news of Hastings' death to a military contact of mine, someone who venerated one of the men that Hastings did not, and my contact was very rude and blunt in his assessment. Hastings had been, apparently, a dick to him.

I didn't know Hastings well. We exchanged emails a few times.

I do know that he was actively disliked by government higher-ups....  More»

June 19, 2013, at 11:10 AM

Edward Snowden's dissent from orthodoxy about what Americans should know about government secrets has been incredibly important. It might also become dangerous. What happens when you blow the whistle so loudly that everyone not only hears you but becomes deaf?

When the 29-year-old former contractor gave reporters the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's directive Verizon Business, the NSA could no longer conceal the fact that it collected American telephone records. The legal, political and national security justifications for the practice are all intertwined, and the leak tore one strand from another: The FISA court provided "directives," not...  More»

June 20, 2013, at 6:56 PM

As long as there have been allegations, or perhaps generalized notions based on a mistrust in government, that NSA has the capability to read American emails without a court order, something has bothered me.

How would NSA actually accomplish bulk collection of content?

I mean, yes, the obvious top layer above-the-clouds answer is that they use switches that divert data into their servers, like the switches installed by AT&T after 9/11.

But that's like saying our bodies absorb nutrients we digest as a way of explaining why proteins are so important.

Now, I am not an expert in data encryption or information technology. Fortunately for me, this is a blog, and one is entitled to write about subjects one does not know much about.

I don't want to reveal any secret techniques NSA might use either, but I don't think a general discussion of email hacking...  More»

June 20, 2013, at 7:41 PM

This is a distasteful subject to write about. But Los Angeles talk radio is obsessed with the death of Michael Hastings and the insinuations that somehow he was killed by unknown forces attempting to silence him.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to the scene of the car crash. Several bouquets of flowers ringed a tree. I saw candles and notes. It's very sad.

Trutherism (the catch-all term for instant conspiracies based on extreme mistrust and/or unfounded supposition) makes me angry.

I would much rather have Hastings' life work be the subject of discussion and criticism than to hear L.A. radio jocks gawk at Hastings' personal history and demons.

Maybe it's a little too personal for me.

1. Cars don't often crash and burst into flames. Especially not cars that are new and well-made, not Mercedes, and especially not cars that are designed to eject their engine...  More»

June 21, 2013, at 3:36 PM

Now we know. The latest classified documents released by the Guardian and the Washington Post answer some of the bigger questions we've been asking about how the National Security Agency deals with content that belongs to what it calls a "U.S. person."

On the one hand, NSA has several iterative procedures in place designed to reduce the likelihood that such content will be inadvertently intercepted by analysts. In general, I think the analysts themselves have as much interest in spying on Americans as you or I do, which is to say that the idea repulses them....  More»

June 21, 2013, at 9:43 PM

This is a bit of a follow-up to yesterday's post on how NSA hacks into email accounts. The information comes courtesy of a talk I had with the ACLU's Chris Sogohoian, who is probably one of the leading intellectual forces probing the intersection of technology, privacy, and surveillance. (If I've gotten any of it wrong, it's on me, not him.)

Let's call it the Yahoo problem.

Google and most other internet content providers use SSL, a protocol that encrypts data as it passes through a network.

Yahoo does not use SSL encryption by default.

Yahoo users who communicate with other Yahoo users are sending their data through the networks without encryption....  More»

June 24, 2013, at 7:39 PM

The day that President Obama met with the President of China, the Guardian published a Snowden-gram designed, I assume, to embarrass the U.S. and show that, when it came to carping about Chinese cyber-espionage, the U.S. was hypocritical.

The document, a Presidential Policy Directive on cyberwar, does no such thing. It reads as a very careful and well-vetted guidebook to using instruments of cyber power in a way that is reasonable, risk-sensitive, and legitimate.

But the document is classified. Absurdly so, in my opinion. Absurdly so, and damagingly so. Its classification adds sinister implications where there are none.

The U.S. government has been open about the architecture of its cyber warfare forces for years, and policy-makers have spoken openly of the need to prepare the cyber battlefield for war against states and non-state actors, to...  More»

June 24, 2013, at 8:26 PM

Several paragraphs in the Presidential Policy Directive on cyberware — those about "emergency cyber actions" — will trouble civil libertarians and companies in the U.S. The reason is not so much the content of the paragraphs but the fact that the government felt it necessary to hide them.

Actually, the words "emergency cyber actions" are themselves classified!

Who wouldn't be suspicious of a SECRET document that spells out the fact that the government, acting under the national command authority, will act to shut down part of the internet if there's an existential threat?

I'm going to reprint the (S/NF) paragraphs in full because they seem to be something we'd want the government to do.

The caveats themselves (and the fact that THEY are secret) suggest that the government will truly revert to something like this in an absolute emergency....  More»

June 27, 2013, at 3:00 PM

The Guardian's latest Snowden-gram is worth your full read, whether or not you're a fan of foe of the person who leaked it. A lot of it is familiar, and in a good way. I'm relieved: If the NSA inspector general is to be believed, his conclusions mean that none of the intelligence sources who spoke to me about the programs for my book were dishonest with me. Their account of what happened jibes with the inspector general's history of the STELLARWIND program.

Here's what jumped out at me:

1. My friends in the intelligence community might disagree, but I can make a good faith-and-facts argument that virtually everything in the report is (a) not damaging to national security, (b) ought to be declassified, (c) ought to have been declassified a while ago, and (d) contributes to the necessary public discussion about surveillance and collection post 9/11....  More»

June 27, 2013, at 4:23 PM

The second half of the NSA Inspector General's report on STELLWARWIND identifies the legal obstacles NSA faced in regularizing and legitimizing a program that was born and reared in secrecy, around and outside of the established Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court framework.

The report confirms that Acting Attorney General James Comey objected in March of 2004 to the bulk collection of internet data, and that the collection of said data did not continue until additional filtering and minimization mechanisms were put into place to satisfy Comey's concerns. This included more specific information on the "data links and the number of people who could access the data." For the first time, then, the directive came from the FISA court itself, and not from the attorney general....  More»


To prevent future leaks of classified information and to keep pace with chameleon-y enemies, the NSA needs to hire more Edward Snowdens, not fewer of them.

Right after Snowden became a household name, the New York Times' David Brooks self-satisfyingly blamed an entire generation of Americans for the actions of one.

After noting that Snowden seemed to like living in a lot of places, Brooks wrote that the man was the "product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: The atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between ...  More»


I was on vacation, checked out, on the beach, dude, when I heard about the crash of Asiana Flight 214. My news-y instincts kicked in, as they always do, always pissing off my friends and family, and I started to Tweet. Oh, was I clever and quick. I've already aggregated so many critical information streams, scanner feeds, photo feeds, Twitter accounts, and websites that it was quite easy to become a hub of information in no time, even though I'm not a pilot, not a San Franciscan, have no human sources in the Bay Area, and have no access to the larger canvasses of television or radio.

Go me. After a few minutes of Tweeting, my stream started to fill itself with meta-Tweets, or Tweets about Tweeting. They were self-congratulatory Tweets from people who spend their days on Twitter....  More»

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