NEW YORK — When Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, sat down with President Obama at the White House in April to discuss Syrian chemical weapons, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and climate change, it was a cordial, routine exchange.
The National Security Agency nonetheless went to work in advance and intercepted Ban’s talking points for the meeting, a feat the agency later reported as an “operational highlight” in a weekly internal brag sheet. It is hard to imagine what edge this could have given Obama in a friendly chat, if he even saw the NSA’s modest scoop. (The White House won’t say.)
But it was emblematic of an agency that for decades has operated on the principle that any eavesdropping that can be done on a foreign target of any conceivable interest — now or in the future — should be done. After all, American intelligence officials reasoned, who’s going to find out?
From thousands of classified documents, the National Security Agency emerges as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.
It spies routinely on friends as well as foes, as has become obvious recently. The agency’s official mission list includes using its surveillance powers to achieve “diplomatic advantage” over such allies as France and Germany and “economic advantage” over Japan and Brazil, among other countries.
Obama found himself in September standing uncomfortably beside the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who was furious at being named as a target of NSA eavesdropping.
Since then, there has been a parade of such protests, from the European Union, Mexico, France, Germany, and Spain. Chagrined US officials joke that soon there will be complaints from foreign leaders feeling slighted because the agency had not targeted them.
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, has repeatedly dismissed such objections as brazen hypocrisy from countries that do their own share of spying. But in a recent interview, he acknowledged that the scale of eavesdropping by the NSA, with 35,000 workers and $10.8 billion a year, sets it apart.
“There’s no question that from a capability standpoint we probably dwarf everybody on the planet, just about, with perhaps the exception of Russia and China,” he said.
Since Edward J. Snowden began releasing the agency’s documents in June, the unrelenting stream of disclosures has opened the most extended debate on the agency’s mission since its creation in 1952.
The scrutiny has ignited a crisis of purpose and legitimacy for the NSA, the nation’s largest intelligence agency, and the White House has ordered a review of both its domestic and foreign intelligence collection.
While much of the focus has been on whether the agency violates Americans’ privacy, an issue under examination by Congress and two review panels, the anger expressed around the world about American surveillance has prompted far broader questions.
If secrecy can no longer be taken for granted, when does the political risk of eavesdropping overseas outweigh its intelligence benefits? Should foreign citizens, many of whom now rely on American companies for e-mail and Internet services, have any privacy protections from the NSA?
A review of classified agency documents, obtained by Snowden and shared with The New York Times by The Guardian, offered a rich sampling of the agency’s global operations.
The NSA seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering minute data that might add to the US government’s knowledge of the world. To some Americans, that may be a comfort. To others, and to people overseas, that may suggest an agency out of control.