A set of classified documents published by The Intercept on Monday shows how the National Security Agency (NSA) makes more than 850 billion records about various forms of communications available to other U.S. governmental agencies through a portal similar in look and feel to a traditional web search engine.
The search tool, called ICREACH, provides access to all communications records collected under a Reagan-era executive order, known as executive order 12333, that targets foreign communication networks. The purview of 12333 has recently attracted negative attention due to the lack of oversight of its surveillance, and the lack of public information regarding its use and breadth.
In the wake of the revelations sourced from documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, much public discourse has focused on how the government uses, and shares data that it collects — which agencies have access to specific information, and how privacy is treated have been key topics of discussion. The Intercept’s most recent report throws light onto one way NSA-collected metadata is shared inside of the larger U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities — simply, widely, and often, it appears.
Communications records, often referred to as meta data, contain information about a communication event, but not its content. The government can therefore know who someone calls, and when, for how long, and what the other person’s number is, and where the call took place, if not its actual dialog. As many senior American leaders have argued, that level of information is itself wildly intrusive.
The Intercept reports more than 1,000 analysts from many U.S. agencies have access to a newly disclosed search engine. Although the search engine does not sift through the American telephone metadata records that the government sweeps up under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, it does frequently incidentally collect American records. According to The Intercept, millions of records belonging to Americans “who have not been accused of any wrongdoing” are included in the database.
In 2006 planning documents by then NSA leader General Keith Alexander, he calls ICREACH a “one stop shopping tool.” Data from foreign sources such as the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) can be found inside of ICREACH, according to the documents, though there appear to be some restriction on how that information can be incorporated.
The Intercept indicates that the program could have grown since the 2010 document that revealed more than 1,000 analysts had access to the tool. In the 2013 “Black Budget” for the intelligence community that Snowden shared with The Intercept, the NSA wanted to upgrade the system to “provide IC analysts with a wider set of shareable data.”
The Director of National Intelligence responded to our request to comment with exactly the same statement they sent The Intercept:
“The appropriate and prudent sharing of information is a pillar of the post-9/11 Intelligence Community. Both the 9/11 and WMD Commissions, as well as Congress and two administrations, have urged the IC not to allow valuable intelligence to get stove-piped in any single office or agency. By allowing other IC organizations to query legally-collected foreign intelligence repositories of appropriately minimized data, analysts can develop vital intelligence leads without requiring access to raw intelligence collected by other IC agencies. In the case of NSA, access to raw signals intelligence is strictly limited to those with the training and authority to handle it appropriately. The highest priority of the intelligence community is to work within the constraints of law to collect, analyze and understand information related to potential threats to our national security.”