In recent days, disclosures of electronic surveillance by the U.S.
How did the NSA controversy start?
On June 5 and 6, the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian published highly classified documents revealing two genuinely surprising secrets. One showed that the U.S. National Security Agency had been obtaining and storing the calling records of every American under the supervision of a secret intelligence court, despite denials by senior officials that this was happening. The other detailed how the NSA had been obtaining the content of communications directly from U.S. Internet companies, including
Edward Snowden, who had worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii, revealed himself as the leaker, saying he objected to what he felt was improper surveillance. Then just 29 years old, he used his broad access to NSA systems to download and remove as many as 50,000 documents, most of which have not been revealed. He is now in Moscow.
What is the NSA?
Born in 1952 as a successor to World War II code-breaking agencies, the NSA is part of the military, though many civilians work there. The mandate of the NSA, headquartered at
The agency has rapidly expanded its capability to wiretap foreign leaders, intercept global Internet traffic, defend government networks against cyber attacks and track the locations of adversaries. It has developed into the single most important source of intelligence for the president. It helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden and kill other Al Qaeda operatives with drone strikes. The NSA is a foreign intelligence agency, but because communications are global and intermingled, it inevitably sweeps in the private data of Americans. U.S. data are subject to special handling, but critics question whether the privacy rules are sufficient.
What other secrets has Snowden revealed?
Mike Morell, former CIA deputy director, called Snowden's leaks "the most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community." The worst breach, Morell said, was the disclosure of the "black budget," the once-secret accounting of U.S. intelligence spending. Other Snowden disclosures have fueled dozens of news stories that have given the world a new understanding of the enormous scope of NSA spying – from vacuuming up Internet traffic to eavesdropping on specific foreign politicians and missions. An audit showed that NSA had on occasion exceeded its authority and mishandled data on U.S. citizens by mistake, although its error rate is very low. Unlike the spying scandals of the 1960s and '70s, no evidence has emerged of NSA using its considerable power for political or other improper ends, aside from a handful of cases of individual employees caught spying on love interests.
What's been the fallout, and where is this headed?
The drumbeat of disclosures has put the U.S. intelligence community on the defensive, and there are signs that key politicians, including President