Two of the NSA’s leading officials made an appearance on the 60 Minutes show last night, but what promised to be an eye-opening ‘behind the scenes’ look at the nation’s spy HQ turned out to be a huge disappointment, serving up spoonfuls of agency propaganda with no dissenting voices.
In an effort to try and justify their extensive surveillance of the world’s netizens, NSA Director General Keith Alexander and Information Assurance Director Debora Plunkett made a number of claims that in their opinion, underscore the necessity of their unsettling domestic espionage program. One of the biggest threats that the NSA stumbled upon was how an unnamed foreign country – which 60 Minutes later named as China – supposedly developed BIOS malware “disguised as a request for a software update” that was able to remotely destroy any computer. According to Plunkett, “The NSA working with computer manufacturers was able to close this vulnerability”.
The officials also reiterated the importance of the ‘metadata’ that it collects. In one example, they said that before 9/11, the NSA lacked the capability to match data sets from multiple carriers, something that would have allowed them to better understand the conversations between two parties, and in their opinion, helped the 9/11 hijackers to stay off the radar. They also stressed that the NSA prefers to collect only the metadata of intercepted communications, as this is the “least intrusive” method of surveillance. Finally, Alexander took the opportunity to quell US citizen’s paranoia, stating that the agency is spying on “less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. Persons.”
Sadly the interview was anything but the tortuous grilling that some of our more ‘conspiracy minded’ readers might have hoped for. It’s like the NSA has decided it needs to try harder to win the confidence of the US public, and 60 Minutes has happily played along. Host John Miller essentially indulges Alexander and Plunkett throughout, allowing them to gloss over their achievements and paint the picture of a ‘misunderstood’ NSA that’s just doing its best to defend the USA against terrorists and other threats.
Alexander also took the opportunity to deny a damning Washington Post report from October which claimed the NSA was secretly tapping into the internal traffic of Google and Yahoo without permission, in order to access data before it became encrypted. “We’re not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo as an entity,” Alexander insisted.
There were also several attempts to discredit former contractor Edward Snowden during the show, firstly when John Miller himself described the whistleblower as a “20-something-year old high school dropout contractor.” Later, while discussing the NSA’s visit to Snowden’s former Hawaii home, Rick Ledgett, who heads an Edward Snowden task force for the agency, said he “couldn’t bring himself” to sit in Snowden’s chair.
“He would work on the computer with a hood that covered the computer screen and covered his head and shoulders, so that he could work and his girlfriend couldn’t see what he was doing.” “That’s pretty strange,” said Miller.
Perhaps the biggest joke is this so-called BIOS malware – if this is one of the biggest threats the NSA has faced down, that’s almost laughable. Bricking a PC is a pretty trivial feat for any user, all it takes is an urge to upgrade the BIOS, combined with downloading the wrong (or corrupted) image, and/or a lack of reading comprehension. And what good would this kind of malware do for any rogue state anyway? At best, it would knock out a few thousand PCs before the malware was identified and flagged – certainly not enough to justify snooping on the communications of anyone in the world who happens not to be born in the US.
The NSA is going to need to try much harder if it wants to appease this critic.