The documents, published last week by The Intercept, describe "contractual relationships" between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as the fact that the NSA has "under cover" spies working at or with some U.S. companies.
While not conclusive, the material includes some clear suggestions that at least some American companies are quite willing to help the agency conduct its massive surveillance programs.
The precise role of U.S. companies in the NSA's global surveillance operations remains unclear. Documents obtained by Edward Snowden and published by various news organizations show that companies have turned over their customers' email, phone calling records and other data under court orders. But the level of cooperation beyond those court orders has been an open question, with several leading companies, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, asserting that they only turn over customer information that is "targeted and specific" in response to legal demands.
The documents do not identify any specific companies as collaborating with the NSA. The references are part of an inventory of operations, of which the very "fact that" they exist is classified information. These include the:
"SIGINT" in NSA jargon is signals intelligence, the intercepting of data and voice communications. According to the document, "contractual relationships" can mean that U.S. companies deliberately insert "backdoors" or other vulnerabilities that the NSA then uses to access communications. The existence of deals to build these backdoors is secret:
The NSA's efforts to break encryption and establish backdoors were disclosed last year, but left open the possibility that the companies didn't know about the activities. This new disclosure makes clear that some of those relationships are cooperative.
The documents also describe a program codenamed Whipgenie. Its purpose is to safeguard one of the NSA's most important secrets, the "relationships" between "U.S. Corporate partners" and the agency division that taps fiber optic cables. It refers to the dealings with U.S. companies as ECI — exceptionally controlled information: It says:
The Whipgenie document details one company's involvement in "domestic wire access collection" – an apparent reference to eavesdropping inside the United States. Under current law, such surveillance is only allowed after the government obtains a court order. But the document said that at least one "Corporate Partner" was involved in a "cooperative effort" to break into U.S. communications. This information, it says, is itself classified and should be closely guarded:
The Whipgenie document makes clear that the program being shielded from public view involves data that moves through the United States. (Emails and other information from one foreign address to another frequently hopscotch across international borders as companies use the cheapest routing for traffic.) The document tells NSA officials that they should protect:
In 2008, Congress authorized the agency to collect information that traveled through the United States. But the agency is supposed to discard entirely domestic communications that it picks up "incidentally."
A draft document indicates that the NSA targets U.S. manufacturers of commercial equipment used for communications. The document obliquely refers to covert operations by NSA agents aimed at what is termed "specific commercial entities." Those companies are identified in the document only by the letters: A, B, and C.
Sentry Owl, the program that protects this particular bit of spying, is among the most closely guarded secrets in the intelligence community. Documents describe it as "Exceptionally Controlled Information" that can only be disclosed to "a very few select" people in government.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, who head the congressional intelligence oversight committees, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they had been briefed on the program. Sen. Ron Wyden, an outspoken critic of NSA activities that impact U.S. residents, also declined to comment.
In a statement, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said NSA surveillance is authorized by law and subject to multiple layers of oversight. She added: "It should come as no surprise that NSA conducts targeted operations to counter increasingly agile adversaries."