One of the most shocking secrets revealed by Edward Snowden has been overlooked by the US media. Documents exposed by the British newspaper The Guardian show that the National Security Agency could be paying foreign intelligence agencies to spy on Americans in the United States.
Specifically, the NSA has paid its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), around $150 million to upgrade its capabilities over the last three years. The GCHQ has used the money to greatly upgrade its electronic eavesdropping capabilities, and some of those activities appear to be aimed at Americans.
The NSA and GCHQ documents Snowden turned over to The Guardian show that the agency worked closely with the NSA in the investigation of a bombing in Times Square in 2010. The journalists believe this means that the GCHQ could have spied on US citizens on American soil, because it was an American citizen who planted the bomb. They note that it is illegal for the NSA to spy on US citizens and legal residents of the US while they are within US borders.
Unlike the United States, Great Britain does not have a written constitution that specifically bans unreasonable searches and seizures. British law also gives spy agencies more leeway to gather information than their American counterparts.
One of the documents obtained by The Guardian is a sales pitch for the GCHQ. The sales pitch is aimed directly at the NSA, and one of the selling points is a legal and regulatory environment in Britain that makes electronic spying easier. It is not illegal for the GCHQ to gather intelligence about US citizens in the United States.
‘Worse’ than the NSA
Edward Snowden has actually described the GCHQ’s surveillance programs as worse than the NSA. Not only do the two agencies work closely together, but documents seem to indicate that they compete in efforts to develop more effective means of spying.
The GCHQ actually described one of its programs as being able to “exploit any phone, anywhere any time.” The GCHQ’s reach is worldwide, and it is more aggressive than the NSA. The Guardian described the spy organization as an intelligence superpower. Its ambitions go far beyond intercepting terrorists phone calls.
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One of its programs is called Mastering the Internet; the other is Global Telecoms Exploitation. Global Telecoms Exploitation is an effort to tap the fiber optic cables that run between nations and under the oceans between continents. Most of the world’s international internet and telephone traffic moves through these cables.
The Guardian reported that the GCHQ can literally scoop up vast amounts of communications, including emails, Facebook entries, telephone conversations, Skype conversations, and downloads from the cables. The agency has pulled up so much data it has 300 analysts working on it, and it shares that data with the NSA. The NSA has had to assign 250 analysts to examine the data gathered by the GCHQ.
That means if you call your cousin in Mumbai or email your broker in London, the GCHQ and NSA could be listening. They might even be listening if I call my uncles and cousins in Ontario. The program that taps into the fiber optic cables and stores information is called “Tempora.”
The Guardian describes Tempora as an effort to create a “large scale Internet buffer.” All Internet traffic will pass through the buffer and be stored in it for three days. Metadata, or details that make it easy for spies to track your online movements, will be stored for 30 days. The Guardian claims Tempora has been up and running for at least 18 months.
Is GCHQ Targeting Average Americans?
It looks as if a US government agency might be helping a foreign government spy on US citizens in the name of fighting terrorism. Intelligence agencies have moved beyond their traditional role of gathering information about governments and are now gathering information about individual citizens. They’re also sharing that data with other countries in the so called “Five Eyes eavesdropping alliance.” The alliance’s members are the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain.
The NSA’s relationship with GCHQ is troublesome on every level. Not only does it appear to promote illegal activities that could threaten our rights, but it raises issues of national sovereignty.
Has the NSA figured out how to do an end-run around the Constitution with the help of a foreign intelligence agency? If the NSA tapped a US citizen’s phone or intercepted her emails without a warrant, that would violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. If the GCHQ did the same, it would not be violating the Constitution, although NSA might be violating it if GCHQ shares that information with it.
The US financing of British intelligence programs can be construed as interference in the internal politics of the United Kingdom. GCHQ eavesdropping in the US can be construed as a violation of American sovereignty. Serious investigation of these agencies and real oversight by Congress is needed now. Our media is to be condemned for ignoring these issues.