Some even dated from march and april of that year

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many from 2013. Some even dated from March and April of that year, just months before we met Snowden in Hong Kong. The vast majority of the files in the archive were designated “top secret.” Most of those were marked “FVEY,” meaning that they were approved for distribution only to the NSA’s four closest surveillance allies, the “Five Eyes” English-speaking alliance composed of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Others were meant for US eyes only, marked “NOFORN” for “no foreign distribution.” Certain documents, such as the FISA court order allowing collection of telephone records and Obama’s presidential directive to prepare offensive cyber-operations, were among the US government’s most closely held secrets. Deciphering the archive and the NSA’s language involved a steep learning curve. The agency communicates with itself and its partners in an idiosyncratic language of its own, a lingo that is bureaucratic and stilted yet at times boastful and even snarky. Most of the documents were also quite technical, filled with forbidding acronyms and code names, and sometimes required that other documents be read first before they could be understood. But Snowden had anticipated the problem, providing glossaries of acronyms and program names, as well as internal agency dictionaries for terms of art. Still, some documents were impenetrable on the first, second, or even third reading. Their significance emerged only after I had put together different parts of other papers and consulted with some of the world’s foremost experts on surveillance, cryptography, hacking, the history of the NSA, and the legal framework governing American spying. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that the mountains of documents were often organized not by subject but by branch of the agency where they had originated, and dramatic revelations were mixed in with large amounts of banal or highly technical material. Although the Guardian devised a program to search through the files by keyword, which was of great help, that program was far from perfect. The process of digesting the archive was painstakingly slow, and many months after we first received the documents, some terms and programs still required further reporting before they could be safely and coherently disclosed.
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Despite such problems, though, Snowden’s files indisputably laid bare a complex web of surveillance aimed at Americans (who are explicitly beyond the NSA’s mission) and non-Americans alike. The archive revealed the technical means used to intercept communications: the NSA’s tapping of Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems, and personal computers. It identified individuals targeted for extremely invasive forms of spying, a list that ranged from alleged terrorists and criminal suspects to the democratically elected leaders of the nation’s allies and even ordinary American citizens. And it shed light on the NSA’s overall strategies and goals.
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  • Spring '14
  • Vanouse,P
  • NSA warrantless surveillance controversy, Laura Poitras

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