Newly released internal NSA documents show that torturing prisoners and water skiing were part of the daily routine for agents stationed in Guantanamo Bay during the Iraq War.
AUSTIN, Texas — Water skiing in the morning, supervising the torture of a prisoner of the global war on terror in the afternoon — that’s just a typical day for National Security Agency personnel.
That’s one of the many glimpses of National Security Agency life found in newly released documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks, which reveal the NSA’s intimate involvement with Guantanamo Bay interrogations and the Iraq War, as well as the dramatically increased demand for intelligence after 9/11.
On May 16, The Intercept released 166 new documents from the thousands leaked by Snowden, comprising a partial archive of an internal electronic newsletter called SIDtoday.
In an introduction to the release, Peter Maass describes the publication as resembling a “small-town newsletter” for the Signals Intelligence Directorate, one of the most important departments within the NSA. SIDtoday opens a window into the NSA’s internal corporate culture, and because they were written purely for NSA employees, the documents include some surprisingly candid disclosures about employees’ actions around the world from an underground bunker in Belgium to Guantanamo Bay and the Middle East.
Snowden, at the time a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor employed by the NSA as an intelligence analyst, met with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel in 2013. He leaked to them information that revealed the NSA’s pervasive surveillance activities, which included monitoring the communications of millions of American citizens and even world leaders.
Launched at the start of the Iraq War, Snowden’s files included the first nine years of SIDtoday’s archives, over 4,500 articles. This release comprises a selection of files from 2003, the first year of publication. Certain sensitive details, like agents’ names, have been redacted.
These archives catch the NSA in the midst of a post-9/11 transitional period, a time when its relatively limited role of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence data expanded to its modern role as one of the most important, and arguably most powerful, intelligence agencies in the world. In 2003, NSA agents were overseeing prisoner interrogations in Guantanamo, learning to make better use of the Internet, riding with soldiers in the Iraq, and laying the groundwork for the dramatic expansion and routine invasions of privacy that would inspire Snowden to blow the whistle a decade later.
Corporate culture at the NSA: Demand explodes after 9/11
Demand for the NSA’s intelligence gathering services dramatically increased after September 11, as the U.S. government focused its resources on preventing the next terrorist attack while simultaneously orchestrating new oil-driven wars in the Middle East.
As the agency became busier and grew larger, SIDtoday shows that the NSA took a page from the corporate world, beginning to refer to other agencies and government departments as “customers” and the intelligence they gathered as “products.”
An Aug. 1, 2003 article introduced agents to the SID’s new “Customer Relationships Director” (whose name has been redacted by The Intercept), in which the director elaborates on this philosophy, which could be borrowed from almost any Wall Street mission statement:
“I’ve seen firsthand not only the value of building good relationships but also the importance of providing products and services to customers that meet their specific needs. NSA and SID have made a strong commitment to customer service by investing resources to better understand the intelligence needs of our customers; to improve synchronization of activities across SID and focus on hunting key information; and to use those customer vectors to drive our investment, business, and, often, policy decisions.”
Another entry in SIDtoday’s series on customer service, from April 22, reveals that nearly every department of the U.S. government became an NSA “customer” after 9/11, seeking more signals intelligence (or SIGINT) than ever before:
“Customers such as the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture, whom we considered to be in a ‘caretaker’ status before 11 September, suddenly became voracious consumers of SIGINT. The NSA Representative, who had been servicing these accounts with a weekly visit to analysts at those locations, suddenly received the access to brief the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior multiple times weekly. Similarly, completely new customers appeared – U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the Federal Reserve, and the Missile Defense Agency.”
Inter-agency cooperation with the NSA only grew with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and amid the Pentagon’s move toward a renewed cold war with China. A May 7 article describes an “interagency SARS conference” to examine whether SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, might weaken the readiness of the Chinese military.
The use of corporate euphemisms may have helped ease the conscience of NSA agents, who were finding themselves stationed in war zones and military prisons and exploring new ways to invade the privacy of millions enabled by burgeoning Internet technology.
Iguanas & interrogation: Inside Guantanamo
On Dec. 22, an NSA agent paints an idyllic portrait of life at Guantanamo Bay during its initial days as a prison:
“An early start can have you climbing John Paul Jones Hill to the Joint Task Force (JTF) SCIF while taking in a beautiful sunrise over the Caribbean Sea with Camp Delta looming austerely below on the southern coastline. After a hustled day of tackling a myriad of issues and directly contributing to the global war on terrorism, one might be inclined to drive out to Phillips Park and enjoy a gorgeous sunset over Leeward Landing; however, the day would not be complete without the frequent iguana encounter. Few work environments offer such an opportunity – a rewarding challenge with incredible surroundings.”
Later, the agent, who describes his work as an NSA Liaison Officer (NSA LNO) as “interesting, challenging, and very fulfilling,” recounts his close involvement in the interrogation of Guantanamo prisoners, many of whom were later cleared of any involvement in terrorist activities:
“On a given week, the NSA LNO might pull together intelligence to support an upcoming interrogation, formulate questions and strategies for the interrogation, and observe or participate in the interrogation. Afterward, the LNO captures and disseminates pertinent technical information gleaned from the interrogation back to NSA TOPIs [Target Office of Primary Interest] for SIGINT development.”
“Outside work, fun awaits and opportunities abound,” the agent continues, maintaining the same breezy tone throughout. But the lighthearted travelogue also provides new evidence that the NSA was closely involved in one of the most controversial episodes in U.S. history, which The Intercept’s Cora Currier calls “a time period when prisoners were subjected to brutal questioning and mistreatment.”
”Other accounts of Guantánamo around the same time were not so sunny,” Currier adds, noting:
“FBI agents there internally protested the interrogation tactics they witnessed, describing them as ‘torture techniques’ and ‘beyond the bounds of standard FBI practice,’ including detainees being chained in fetal positions on the floor, without food or water, and the use of strobe lights, loud music, and dogs.”
There’s little within the SIDtoday archive that gives an indication of the psychological impact these activities might have had on agents deployed to Guantanamo and similar sites. However, a June 10 article on “Crisis Support for Employees” echoes some of the agents’ stresses and fears in the words of its unnamed author, who asks:
“Where can you turn for information when you’ve been told you’ll be deploying to a hostile area and need weapons training? What if you think someone you supervise is contemplating suicide? How can your family find out about benefits they may be eligible for if you’re injured or killed on the job? Would you like to learn how to cope with shift work or donate blood to aid victims of disaster or get help settling a dispute with a coworker?”
Empire building In Iraq & beyond
In “The Most Intriguing Spy Stories From 166 Internal NSA Reports,” Micah Lee and Margot Williams report: “In the first months of the Iraq War, SIDtoday articles bragged about the NSA’s part in the run-up to the invasion and reflected the Bush administration’s confidence that Saddam Hussein had hidden weapons of mass destruction.”
The NSA offered diplomatic intelligence which helped pass United Nations resolutions in favor of the war, including explaining the internal divisions of the U.N. Security Council. An April 1 job listing offers analysts a chance to deploy to Iraq, where personnel would help hunt for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Lee and Williams describe how NSA agents even aided in the rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch:
“In ‘SID Support to POW Rescue,’ Chief of Staff Charles Berlin revealed that the Lynch rescue was aided by blueprints from the Japanese construction firm that originally built the hospital, blueprints rounded up as the rescue was being planned and sent ‘as digital files’ to the commandos ‘literally minutes before the aircraft departed with the strike team’ on April 1. Information about the hospital had been collected by a dedicated Underground Facility Support Cell created by the NSA in 2002 as part of an interagency effort to assess ‘the infrastructure and vulnerabilities of underground facilities used by hostile governments or military forces.’”
SIDtoday reveals an agency enthusiastic about infiltrating almost every corner of the globe, from hunting Russian mobsters to eavesdropping on North Korea’s nuclear program and tapping communications satellites, which could help agents gain “intelligence derived from diplomatic communications … airline reservations and billing data … traffic about terrorists, international crime, weapons of mass destruction … international finance and trade.”
Overall, SIDtoday’s archives shed light on the ways NSA agents justify and cope with their work. Peter Maass writes: “The articles, almost uniformly glowing about the NSA, serve as reminders that the men and women who surveil the world are not machines; they have good days and bad days, jokes and tears, and strange tales about their lives.”
He concludes by quoting a 2011 document from one of the NSA’s summer interns, which alludes to the paranoid and secretive environment that drove Snowden to go public when attempts to go through proper channels failed:
“[A] boisterous group of interns stepped into an elevator and got a quick and stern lecture from ‘an older gentleman’ who warned that ‘the only thing you need to know is that we don’t talk in the elevators, and the extroverts look at other people’s shoes.’ The interns silently shared the same reaction — ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’”