The History of the Secret NSA-AT&T Buildings Across the Country

NSA's partnership with AT&T is perfectly normal and legal.

Edward Snowden.
Edward Snowden. The Guardian via Getty Images

Yesterday, The Intercept returned to its roots. Established in 2014 to pimp the vast trove of U.S. intelligence documents stolen by Edward Snowden before he fled to Moscow, the website gained notoriety for its trenchant left-wing views and consistent condemnation of Western governments, above all America’s. Although The Intercept boasts of its “fearless, adversarial journalism that holds the powerful accountable,” it seems a lot more interested in exposing the secrets of law-based democracies than those of the authoritarian dictatorships that threaten them.

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Yesterday’s alleged bombshell, “The Wiretap Rooms: The NSA’s Hidden Spy Hubs in Eight U.S. Cities,” was trademark. Based on top-secret documents stolen by Snowden when he worked as an IT contractor for the agency, this incredibly verbose exposé reveals that NSA has partnered with private telecommunications firms for decades to accomplish its mission: the collection and analysis of signals intelligence for the U.S. government.

The piece goes into considerable detail about NSA’s partnership with AT&T since the mid-1980s in a Top Secret Codeword program termed FAIRVIEW. (As I was “read into” FAIRVIEW during my time with NSA, I have no comment on the veracity of the reporting, except to state that the classified NSA slides included in the report, which date to 2011 and were stolen by Snowden, appear to be genuine.) As The Intercept presents in the most breathlessly nefarious manner possible, NSA and the private sector work together, in a completely legal fashion, to provide SIGINT for Washington and our allies.

Going into a level of detail that seems designed to encourage terrorists to attack them, the piece gives the exact address, including photos, of eight AT&T facilities in cities across the United States (Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C.) that, it nebulously asserts, are part of a sinister secret NSA espionage empire that’s spying on Americans all over the place—right in their own cities!

On cue, the piece received high-profile coverage across the ideological spectrum. The Drudge Report headlined the report in bold “NSA SKYSCRAPERS ACROSS USA REVEALED.” On the Left, the anarcho-geek Ars Technica profiled the “8 spooky AT&T buildings that almost certainly also serve the NSA,” complete with the sinister tone of the original report. D Magazine in Dallas ran a piece headlined, “NSA Is Spying On Us From That Hideous AT&T Building in East Dallas,” adding ominously, “Now we know what exactly it’s for.”

As has become the custom, the Kremlin jumped in with a propaganda piece on Sputnik, the Russian government-owned website, titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: NSA, AT&T Intertwine to Form Surveillance Web Over US.” The title says it all, and the piece implies that NSA is using sinister, windowless buildings across the United States to spy on Americans. Here we see the now-familiar disinformation loop in action: Edward Snowden stole classified documents that he didn’t understand and gave them to Western journalists who didn’t really understand them either but were eager to publish parts of them, in the most sensational manner possible, thereby feeding Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine with disinformation harming Western governments. This is the same Active Measures offensive we’ve been enduring since Snowden showed up in Moscow five years ago this week, and that did so much damage to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

The Intercept’s NSA “bombshell” is one of the more notorious examples of a buried lede in modern journalism. After you read several thousand words of hand-wringing about the agency’s allegedly nefarious activities, you encounter the salient fact that FAIRVIEW is a perfectly normal and legal operation, approved by Congress many times, to assist NSA in its core mission of collecting and disseminating foreign intelligence. It is not a program to spy on Americans.

By its very nature, SIGINT follows telecommunications and has for more than a century. In secret—well, until yesterday—NSA partners with AT&T in pursuit of Internet traffic because that’s how global telecommunications is routed in the 21st century. A staggering percentage of the world’s online communications travel through U.S. firms and servers. They are scanned using very complex SIGINT filtering technology to look for intelligence information of value—while protecting Americans’ civil liberties.

For instance, a terrorist in Pakistan who’s chatting online with a terror financier in Belgium, unknown to him may have his communications routed through a server in the United States, where NSA might see it. This is perfectly legal foreign intelligence collection that, frankly, every advanced state on earth does. The difference is that in the United States—unlike, say, in Russia or China—SIGINT operations are tightly regulated by laws, federal courts, and Congressional oversight, and FAIRVIEW is no exception.

As I’ve been explaining to the public for five years running, NSA does not spy on the private communications of Americans unless they concern foreign espionage or terrorism, and that collection must be approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Period. The Intercept’s continuing efforts to obfuscate about this, thereby helping the Kremlin in its never-ending efforts to smear Western intelligence generally and NSA specifically, change none of the laws governing what the agency does.

Here they take advantage of low-information readers who know nothing about SIGINT, its history, or how it works in the real world. There is nothing new about using American-based telecommunications firms to assist intelligence collection; it’s been going on for a century now. At the end of World War I, Washington, D.C. secretly established the Cipher Bureau, a small, deep-cover SIGINT operation located in New York City to collect foreign intelligence. It was based in Manhattan, not our nation’s capital, because that was where the international cable traffic got routed. Indeed, the shop masqueraded as a private IT firm to provide cover for its highly classified work. The Cipher Bureau needed to be where the communications were, and in the decade of its existence, it did an impressive job of providing our top military and diplomatic officials with high-grade SIGINT about foreign governments.

Such knowledge of how intelligence works in the real world is not conducive to promoting outrage, however, so it gets omitted from most present-day accounts, particularly sensationalist ones whose obvious intent is to smear legitimate, law-based espionage by Western democracies. This is yet another example of advocacy-journalists creating Fake News with selective use of facts to weave a narrative that’s steeped in disinformation. It’s not difficult to understand why Putin’s Kremlin dislikes NSA passionately, given that agency’s role as the cornerstone of the Western intelligence alliance, but it’s worth asking why certain Western journalists seem to share that Russian passion.

The History of the Secret NSA-AT&T Buildings Across the Country