An early version of this article said James B. Comey had been nominated for the role of FBI director. Comey is the expected pick, but a nominee has not been named. This version of the article has been corrected.
On March 12, 2004, acting attorney general James B. Comey and the Justice Department’s top leadership reached the brink of resignation over electronic surveillance orders that they believed to be illegal.
President George W. Bush backed down, halting secret foreign-
intelligence-gathering operations that had crossed into domestic terrain. That morning marked the beginning of the end of STELLARWIND, the cover name for a set of four surveillance programs that brought Americans and American territory within the domain of the National Security Agency for the first time in decades. It was also a prelude to new legal structures that allowed Bush and then President Obama to reproduce each of those programs and expand their reach.
What exactly STELLARWIND did has never been disclosed in an unclassified form. Which parts of it did Comey approve? Which did he shut down? What became of the programs when the crisis passed and Comey, now Obama’s expected nominee for FBI director, returned to private life?
Authoritative new answers to those questions, drawing upon a classified NSA history of STELLARWIND and interviews with high-ranking intelligence officials, offer the clearest map yet of the Bush-era programs and the NSA’s contemporary U.S. operations.
STELLARWIND was succeeded by four major lines of intelligence collection in the territorial United States, together capable of spanning the full range of modern telecommunications, according to the interviews and documents.
Foreigners, not Americans, are the NSA’s “targets,” as the law defines that term. But the programs are structured broadly enough that they touch nearly every American household in some way. Obama administration officials and career intelligence officers say Americans should take comfort that privacy protections are built into the design and oversight, but they are not prepared to discuss the details.
The White House, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the record for this article. A senior intelligence official agreed to answer questions if not identified.
“We have rich oversight across three branches of government. I’ve got an [inspector general] here, a fairly robust legal staff here . . . and there’s the Justice Department’s national security division,” the official said. “For those things done under court jurisdiction, the courts are intrusive in my business, appropriately so, and there are two congressional committees. It’s a belts-and-suspenders-and-Velcro approach, and inside there’s rich auditing.”
But privacy advocates, such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said the intelligence committee on which he serves needs “straight answers” to do vigorous oversight.
He added: “The typical person says, ‘If I am law-abiding and the government is out there collecting lots of information about me — who I call, when I call, where I call from’ . . . I think the typical person is going to say, ‘That sure sounds like it could have some effect on my privacy.’ ”
Two of the four collection programs, one each for telephony and the Internet, process trillions of “metadata” records for storage and analysis in systems called MAINWAY and MARINA, respectively. Metadata includes highly revealing information about the times, places, devices and participants in electronic communication, but not its contents. The bulk collection of telephone call records from Verizon Business Services, disclosed this month by the British newspaper the Guardian, is one source of raw intelligence for MAINWAY.
The other two types of collection, which operate on a much smaller scale, are aimed at content. One of them intercepts telephone calls and routes the spoken words to a system called NUCLEON.
For Internet content, the most important source collection is the PRISM project reported on June 6 by The Washington Post and the Guardian. It draws from data held by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other Silicon Valley giants, collectively the richest depositories of personal information in history.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, 29, who unmasked himself as the source behind the PRISM and Verizon revelations, said he hoped for a systematic debate about the “danger to our freedom and way of life” posed by a surveillance apparatus “kept in check by nothing more than policy.”
For well over a week, he has had his wish. Startling disclosures have poured out of the nation’s largest and arguably tightest-lipped spy agency at an unprecedented pace. Snowden’s disclosures have opened a national conversation about the limits of secret surveillance in a free society and an outcry overseas against U.S. espionage.