ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS, CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.
It used to be very, very difficult to report on the National Security Agency. That changed very dramatically five months ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: ...A bombshell report this morning that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans...
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: ...randomly and...
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #3: ...where calls were made, how long they were for, the time...
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #4: ...is reigniting the concerns that your privacy is being violated to protect America's security...
RATH: For months, the documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have produced revelation after revelation about America's top secret intelligence gathering. And that's our cover story today: Shining a light on the NSA.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: The latest wave of revelations about the NSA has outraged leaders across the globe who found out they had been spied on. But here's the thing: The NSA is supposed to be spying on foreigners. They're explicitly not supposed to be spying on Americans - at least, not on purpose. The problem is, in gathering so much information about foreigners, a lot about Americans gets picked up.
SCOTT SHANE: All the NSA's big targets, many of them use the same communication systems that we all do.
RATH: That's Scott Shane. He's a national security reporter for the New York Times, and he has access to the Snowden documents. In the NSA's search for foreign intelligence, Shane says they use two enormous sources of data on Americans.
SHANE: One is the so-called phone metadata program that collects phone numbers, the duration, the time of virtually every phone call made in the United States. Then the other would be what NSA refers to as incidental collection, which is Americans they pick up when they're targeting foreigners. And while "incidental" sounds minimal, to all appearances, incidental collection is actually quite massive - as is almost everything, when you're talking about NSA.
RATH: Are there restrictions, though, on the kind of data they can collect, specifically on Americans and how long they can keep it?
SHANE: Basically, they're prohibited from targeting an American's communications unless they have a court order from the so-called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that oversees eavesdropping in Washington. Also, when they do eavesdrop on foreigners, they have to do what's called minimization . They have a bunch of complicated rules that say that if they report on a conversation - say, between an American and a foreign target, they have to take the name of the American out of the report, under most circumstances, and substitute the words "U.S. person." There are some loopholes to that, however. But in general, the agency's oriented towards collecting foreign intelligence, and targets foreigners.
RATH: Now, some communications companies have cooperated to varying degrees, but we know that the NSA has actually broken into the data centers owned by companies like Yahoo! and Google. Can you explain, what did they do there?
SHANE: These big companies - Yahoo! and Google, and so on - have giant data centers. And many of them are overseas. And apparently, they've broken into the connections where one data center is sending information to another. In general, it's clear from these documents that NSA has a philosophy that it will collect - as it puts it - the entire haystack, and then look for the needle.
RATH: Scott, I'm sure you've heard the argument that when the New York Times publishes information about the sort of intelligence we do on our adversaries and allies, that potentially aids terrorists. Have you seen any evidence that there has been any damage to national security, as a result of these leaks?
SHANE: Well, certainly, NSA officials believe there has been very significant damage. And to take an example that's made quite a splash, it's been revealed that NSA targeted the cellphone of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's fair to say that if Angela Merkel has a personal cellphone now, it is now undoubtedly encrypted. They have - they're taking other measures to protect their communications.
You can kind of multiply that times hundreds and thousands. We've reminded foreign diplomats, foreign leaders around the world that NSA may well be collecting their communications - something they probably, you know, were aware of in a general way. But this has been brought to their attention in a very prominent way. And they are, undoubtedly, now taking precautions to keep their communications more private. That means it's much more difficult for NSA to collect this intelligence.
RATH: Scott Shane of the New York Times.
When it comes to surveillance, the Obama administration has faced a bipartisan barrage of criticism. The administration says they welcomed the debate, but they didn't start it. Months before the Snowden documents came out, back in March, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, testified before Congress. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked him what he called a simple yes or no question.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEN. RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all, on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
JAMES CLAPPER: No, sir.
WYDEN: It does not?
CLAPPER: Not wittingly.
RATH: We now know that Clapper's statement was not true. We reached Sen. Wyden on the phone yesterday and asked him, was Clapper's statement a lie?
WYDEN: It was - let me put it this way - flagrantly inaccurate, and especially so because I sent him the question a day ahead of time. So that was a judgment that was made consciously.
RATH: Clapper later apologized to the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying his response was, quote, "clearly erroneous." But Sen. Wyden says this is part of a pattern from the leaders of American intelligence agencies.
WYDEN: And again and again, they have been part of what I call a culture of misinformation where, in effect, they have said one thing in public, and quite another in private. And they have done it repeatedly.
RATH: For example, Wyden says the NSA has exaggerated just how successful their surveillance programs have been.
WYDEN: At one point, we were told the bulk phone record collections program produced in more than - over 50 instances, information that was absolutely fundamental to dealing with the terrorist threat. And when asked in more detail, that number kept going down and down and down. And now, it's essentially been in the vicinity of two.
RATH: Sen. Wyden, along with others, is pushing for legislation that would limit the NSA's surveillance of Americans. For its part, the White House says it has been transparent at an unprecedented level when it comes to the NSA, and that it is conducting a thorough review of intelligence activities.
In the meantime, several news organizations now have access to the more than 50,000 documents leaked by Edward Snowden. And Ron Wyden himself says there is much more to the story, yet to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.