Why Did 60 Minutes Let the Head of the NSA Fool Its Audience?

CBS presented General Alexander's highly misleading answer in a way that guaranteed most viewers would be misled.
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Doug Kapustin/Reuters

Consider the following exchange from Sunday's 60 Minutes interview between the head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, and CBS News correspondent John Miller. The subject is the NSA gathering of bulk Internet data while overseas. 

This week, the CEOs of eight major Internet providers including Google, Apple and Yahoo asked the president for new limits to be placed on the NSA’s ability to collect personal information from their users.

John Miller: One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major U.S. Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?

Gen. Keith Alexander: No, that's not correct.

We do target terrorist communications. And terrorists use communications from Google, from Yahoo, and from other service providers. So our objective is to collect those communications no matter where they are. But we're not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo as an entity. But we will collect those communications of terrorists that flow on that network.

How could 60 Minutes broadcast that exchange as is?

* * *

In order to understand what happened here and why it's misleading to viewers, it's useful to look back at the Washington Post story to which the question apparently refers:

The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials.

The article goes on to explain how this overseas data-gathering works and why it is done: 

According to a top-secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, the NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from internal Yahoo and Google networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records—including “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video.

... Intercepting communications overseas has clear advantages for the NSA, with looser restrictions and less oversight. NSA documents about the effort refer directly to “full take,” “bulk access” and “high volume” operations on Yahoo and Google networks. Such large-scale collection of Internet content would be illegal in the United States, but the operations take place overseas, where the NSA is allowed to presume that anyone using a foreign data link is a foreigner.

A subsequent New York Times story is also relevant, as you'll soon see. That story reported on how the NSA bypassed company data centers and tapped fiber-optic cables that connect them:

SAN FRANCISCO — The recent revelation that the National Security Agency was able to eavesdrop on the communications of Google and Yahoo users without breaking into either company’s data centers sounded like something pulled from a Robert Ludlum spy thriller. How on earth, the companies asked, did the N.S.A. get their data without their knowing about it? The most likely answer is a modern spin on a century-old eavesdropping tradition.

People knowledgeable about Google and Yahoo’s infrastructure say they believe that government spies bypassed the big Internet companies and hit them at a weak spot — the fiber-optic cables that connect data centers around the world and are owned by companies like Verizon Communications, the BT Group, the Vodafone Group and Level 3 Communications. In particular, fingers have been pointed at Level 3, the world’s largest so-called Internet backbone provider, whose cables are used by Google and Yahoo.

In his question, Miller should have said is something like, "One of the Snowden leaks reported that the NSA intercepted data flowing between the foreign data centers of major Internet firms. Is that right?" The truthful answer would be, "Yes, that's right."

Instead, Miller said, "One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major U.S. Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?" That's a terrible way to phrase the question if you're dealing with an NSA employee intent on exploiting any loophole.

And Alexander's answer still wasn't totally responsive. 

"No, that's not correct," he began. What's not correct? The NSA documents that Snowden leaked? The Washington Post story? Miller's summary of it? It's left unclear.

Alexander continued: "We do target terrorist communications. And terrorists use communications from Google, from Yahoo, and from other service providers. So our objective is to collect those communications no matter where they are. But we're not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo as an entity. But we will collect those communications of terrorists that flow on that network."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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