back to article NSA: Yes, some of our spooks DID snoop on overseas lovers

NSA spooks used top secret surveillance techniques to snoop on their partners and check out prospective lovers, according to an official admission made to a US senator. A letter from NSA inspector general Dr. George Ellard reveals that spies "intentionally misused" signals intelligence (SIGINT) techniques to gather information …


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  1. James Loughner
    Big Brother


    That is the problem when you build the wolds biggest spy machine.

    For the most part I think the people who are building this monster have good intentions. The problem is what happens when these people are no longer in charge 10 or 20 years down the road. No matter how many rules you layer on the fact is people will misuse this toy and the people in power will see it as a way to stay in power. Hello Big Brother

    1. Quxy

      It was a test exercise...

      Those without the requisite skills to adequately cover their tracks were relieved of their espionage responsibilities, on the grounds of incompetence.

  2. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

    The route to hell starts at

    1. Titus Technophobe

      I don't quite follow 'The route to hell starts at localhost' ?

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

        We as individuals are responsible for our government.

        The route to hell begins at

        Really, I didn't think that evolution was particular difficult, nor beyond a reg reader's dot connection capabilities. Clearly I was mistaken.

    2. tony2heads

      You mean ~

      not localhost

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Do it, and you pretty much disqualify yourself as worthwhile love interest in any case, just for sheer creepiness value - or are their actually people who find that level of voyeuristic invasiveness attractive. Take away the security pass and you look a lot more like typical tabloid 'pervert' headline fodder - sticking to shagging your own kind 'in-house' is probably healthier for NSA staff and the rest of us.

    1. The Indomitable Gall

      Re: Tacky

      To be fair, if you're a secret agent and someone with a foreign accent shows interest in you, you have legitimate cause for paranoia -- outside of MAD Magazine, a lot of Spy vs Spy is about making love, not war...

      1. Rampant Spaniel

        Re: Sod the Macbook Pro

        Very true, but given the nature of the work perhaps there is a legitimate internal process for having them voluntarily check on the object of your desire? Or perhaps some folks are just worried about how it may look if you submit too many requests of that nature?

  4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Yes folks. "True Lies" was a doccumentary.

    (Although getting helicopter support may be more difficult IRL).


    You're suspicious by nature (well it's in your job description).

    You do this.

    There is no effective oversight.

    Why would you not do it?

    I know.. I've worked in some jobs that have had a very corrosive effect on my view of human nature.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    NSA is Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem come true

    Fifty years ago Lem wrote a novel about an underground military complex where everything is secret, everything is a code meaning something completely different and everyone is spying on everyone. As Wikipedia puts it "The narrator inhabits a paranoid dystopia where nothing is as it seems, chaos seems to rule all events, and everyone is deeply suspicious of everyone else". In short: madness.

    But this is my perception of what happened to NSA.

  6. Suricou Raven


    If the reaction to those caught is to allow them to resign and then forget about it, how many more cases are there for which there was never a formal investigation? The NSA is, by its nature, full of people most paranoid - I imagine a lot of the management would perfer to sort things out with an off-the-record telling-off rather then create a paper trail by opening an investigation.

    1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      Re: Disbelief

      I don't think Machievellian politics works like that. A simple reminder in one's pay slip that the NSA has the first say who goes to Guatanamo on extended leave usually secures compliance. Going to Guatanamo on extended leave will accomplish the alternative.

      Gone are the days when murder was used to secure internecine objectives. We are much more civilised these days.

  7. Ralph B
    Paris Hilton

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't

    I kinda see the point of the one case:

    A female spy also admitted "it was her practice to enter foreign national phone numbers she obtained in social settings" to make sure she wasn't about to hop into bed with "shady characters".

    If she had not done her check and had "jumped into bed" with a "shady character" she could have ended up being compromised and losing her job or worse.

    Of course, she could have just simply not "jumped into bed", but then she was a spy, damn it, and that's what spies do!

    1. Mephistro Silver badge

      Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

      Of course, she could have just simply not "jumped into bed", but then she was a spy, damn it, and that's what spies do!

      At least in James Bond movies. In the real world most of them are just a bunch of sad voyeurs.

      Mine is the one with the binoculars and the box of kleenex.

    2. Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face

      Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

      I've seen spooks. There's a form to fill out. The background checks are done by HR.


    3. LazyLazyman

      Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

      It is something I can see as being very difficult for some NSA staff. As much as some people are screaming about it being creepy they must be the target of all sorts of spying. I could understand why someone would feel trepidation about any relationship, more so when the other person is a foreign national. If it dose turn out that they are infact sleeping with you to spy on you, which would not be surprising, then you could end up loosing your job or worse.

      Whilst I don't agree with abusing the systems like this, there should be some process in place to help those who are at risk, but also prevent just creepy stalking and the like.

      1. Roo

        Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

        OK, your argument rests on the idea that an NSA employee may be sanctioned if the NSA deems their bit of fluff as a threat. If that really is how the NSA operates, and the employees accept this (they appear to accept this as fact seeing as they are working for the NSA *and* spying on their lovers), then surely the NSA should offer a vetting service to their employees. It would still be creepy, but at least it would replace the stalking activity with possibly legitimate surveillance.

        1. Titus Technophobe

          Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

          … an NSA employee may be sanctioned if the NSA deems their bit of fluff as a threat. If that really is how the NSA operates, and the employees accept this …

          Not too sure how NSA works. But yes, assuming that your ‘bit of fluff’ was considered a threat it would affect somebody in possession of a security clearance. I guess the employees of NSA may well accept this much the same as any other place.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dear NSA,

    I'm looking for a single woman about 50 with dark hair.

    Can you help? You know who I am, just leave a message in my Gmail account, thanks.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dear NSA,

      I'll introduce you to my sister, but she's only 45 stone, not 50. Hope its not a deal breaker.

  9. Chris G Silver badge

    A little edit

    I thought the last paragraph in the article needed a slight edit:

    "This is false and misleading ; According to NSA's independent Inspector General there have been only 12 SUBSTANTIATED cases of willful violations over 10 years, essentially one per year."

    Now we know what he was actually saying!

    Things have gone so far, there is little the NSA or any similar organisation can say that will be believed at face value.

  10. Dan 55 Silver badge

    That's okay, they're only foreign

    Now to the next obvious question, can we have some numbers on how many USAians have been snooped just to make sure they're not "shady characters"?

  11. Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face

    I'm having more than a little trouble believing the line: "we mostly / generally only abused our powers where foreigners were involved and therefore conveniently didn't break the law at all".

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's the big deal?

    A lot of these revelations aren't exactly startling, but they still engender some discomfort. This latest on the NSA, however, seems almost reasonable. Perhaps an involved party shouldn't have made the inquiries, but individuals holding top secret clearances, especially working for an intelligence agency, have strict rules about foreign interactions, typically forbidding relationships of any kind with non-citizens and oft travel to other countries. When a sigint robot sees her husband may be involved in some way with a foreign party he didn't advise her of (as I'm sure he was perfectly aware he needed to), it's not unfathomable to imagine fear prompted a self-serving look into the matter, if only to get a handle on what trouble may be coming her way. Against the rules, sure, but ironically it's likely within the scope of this operative's work.

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: What's the big deal?

      Right. I'm sure that's a much easier way of finding out whats going on, then to just you know ASK your partner who the number is for. But then I suppose that would mean she had to admit that she was spying on her husbands phone bill in the beginning. There's a little thing called trust and without it you may as well not bother with the whole marriage thing...

    2. Keep Refrigerated

      Re: What's the big deal?

      Yes it all makes perfect sense...

      Just like bank employees should be expected to snoop into friends, families and potential lovers bank accounts just to check, y'know, there's no fraud going on. Because they could risk their job having a relationship with someone who is a fraudster. Against the rules, sure, but it's likely within the scope of this bank employees work.

      There's HR, Compliance and other procedures for this soft of thing - whether it's the director, an agent, or the janitor who happens to be working at their offices.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What's the big deal?

        Wait, so you trust your average bank employee? People are going to do as people are wont to do, and most people are ignorant at best, and many more just stupid.

  13. JTOMM129

    Have kids?

    The dirty little truth is many managers actually want their top people to play around a bit, just to see where the system boundaries/weaknesses are. But then it makes it hard to say "no" or maintain the correct discipline with very bright troopers (just ask any parent).

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Other reason to let them play

      "Boss, wasn't that illegal?"

      "Take a look at this record of you listening in on your girlfriend's phone call."

      "Sorry boss, my mistake. I am sure you were acting within the limits of a secret FISA warrant I have not seen."

  14. James 100

    Trust our security precautions, they say...

    They claim it's safe to trust them with all our data, because their security systems stop people snooping on things they shouldn't. So ... where was that security when Snowden was downloading what is starting to resemble their entire stash of secrets? If it's not good enough to stop him grabbing every classified document under the sun, how on earth are we supposed to believe it's good enough to stop all his thousands of colleagues looking at my email or phone records?

    There is something rather absurd about the boss saying "trust our security precautions to keep you safe from our staff", when we only know those precautions are needed because their security was so comprehensively breached by one of those same people!

    1. bitmap animal

      Re: Trust our security precautions, they say...

      The thing to consider here is he was quite a high level sysadmin so would have had access to 'behind the scenes' systems that the traditional users would not.

      He abused the trust and access he was given. In a jail I'm sure there is a locksmith who could use his knowledge to cause mayhem there should he decide to use his access to do so.

      1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

        Re: Trust our security precautions, they say...

        "In a jail I'm sure there is a locksmith who could use his knowledge to cause mayhem there should he decide to use his access to do so."

        Employment prospects for members of a Family:



        Scrap Metal merchant



        Civil Engineer



        Systems Admin

        Prime Minister in wartime

        Hell I could go on indefinitely. An iconic hero of WW2 was the anarchic inventer of the Dirty Dozen. (Filthy 13; a great book by the way.) There isn't a position of trust that isn't occupied by some of the worst criminals imaginable. Sometimes they are there as a necessary evil. Sometimes they are there because shit rises. Look at Winston Churchill. How the hell did that disaster happen?

  15. dan1980

    Only 12 criminals allowed to go free from the NSA - well that's set my mind at ease

    While these invasions may be rare (not that there is any reason to believe they are) they show several things that should do quite the opposite of putting "the world's mind at rest":

    1. NSA Safeguards are inadequate

    2. NSA Oversight is inadequate

    2. NSA Discipline is inadequate

    In short, the NSA have taken a massive liberty with people's privacy but have completely failed to respect the great responsibility that they have to those people.

    If the government and NSA are defending the legality of their surveillance programs on the basis of FISA approval - saying everything was legal because snooping was carried out only after approval by a magistrate - surely that then means that any person who undertook surveillance WITHOUT such approval has no such legal protection and has thus broken the law.

    Let's ignore internal disciplinary structures for the moment - surely these people who undertook this covert surveillance and spying are guilty of rather serious crimes. No?

    Here we see the massive hypocrisy with an agency that passes information outside the remit of its programs to other agencies such as the DEA so they can combat crimes but when someone internal has committed a crime, they allow them to go free.

    1. Titus Technophobe

      Dan1980’s frothy skinny latte

      Ooo yes frothy very frothy…. Looking at your points:

      1. NSA Safeguards are inadequate

      12 cases doesn’t seem a huge number? How many people work for the NSA, 100, 1000 ….

      2. NSA Oversight is inadequate

      Arguably this may be true, but it appears that against the wishes of POTUS it is being beefed up anyway

      2. (sic) NSA Discipline is inadequate

      So you would you like capital punishment? Effectively you are suggesting some low level employee be shot for what is essentially a ‘domestic’?

      1. The Indomitable Gall

        Re: Dan1980’s frothy skinny latte

        "So you would you like capital punishment? Effectively you are suggesting some low level employee be shot for what is essentially a ‘domestic’?"

        I thought he was rather clear on this, so stop trolling.

        No action has been taken against any of these ex-employees, as they all resigned before internal action could be taken. But what they did was a criminal act, as defined by US laws. Why haven't they been put before a jury to answer charges of wiretapping?

        1. Titus Technophobe

          Re: Dan1980’s frothy skinny latte

          The reason there is no jury might be because this was traffic analysis of the phone calls rather than wiretapping.

      2. dan1980

        Flat white, but thanks for the offer!

        Whoops - posted in a hurry as my train was pulling into the station!

        >> 1. Safeguards

        First, only 12 that we know of. But lets take the numbers at face value and go with just 12. We are talking about an agency with access to the most comprehensive computer security tools yet developed and with an MO of snoop-first-ask-questions-later. This is an agency that has developed software to monitor, control and surreptitiously sabotage foreign-owned nuclear facilities on other continents, convinced technology companies to betray the trust of their paying customers and has risked diplomatic outrage from allies by bugging their embassies.

        Their very purpose is to monitor and analyse information in order to understand the behaviour of their targets.

        So yeah, I expect them to place the same importance on making sure their staff are not abusing their positions as they do on monitoring the communications of their citizens. They have the technology and manpower to monitor and process the communications and online behaviour of tens (if not hundreds) of millions of ordinary people so I cannot think of an excuse for them not to monitor their own employees, given the potential for those employees to abuse their positions and violate the privacy of innocent individuals. I expect them to place a pretty big emphasis on that and monitor it accordingly.

        >> 2. Oversight

        I guess we agree there!

        >> 3. Discipline

        I'm pretty sure I didn't mention or even imply capital punishment. Like I said, I was in a hurry, but I'm still pretty sure I didn't write that.

        No, What I want is genuine internal disciplinary action at the very least. I appreciate that people make mistakes and that that does not automatically make them bad people. However, we are talking about a group of people with access to what amounts to a printout of our personalities: web browsing histories coupled with phone records, coupled with private e-mails and personal chat transcripts; purchasing histories cross-referenced with facebook updates and family photo albums. In short, a depth of information that most of us don't even share with our closest family and friends.

        That is a massive trust being given to these people and even a single breach of that trust should be considered a very large deal indeed. It might not be to you but it is to me and the public have shown that it is to them as well so it should also be a big deal to those people who are in the position of ensuring that these programs are run 'by the book'.

        And, as I said, if the logic goes that these programs are legal because they are sanctioned by FISC then surely it stands to reason that any surveillance and spying conducted without the express approval of that court is unlawful, which is to say illegal. Again, which is to say that those who conduct such unauthorised and therefore illegal spying are guilty of committing a crime. There are many people in this world in jail for lapses of judgement - why should it be different for people who deliberately and, for purely personal and selfish reasons, abuse the trust of those they are ostensibly employed to protect?

  16. QuinnDexter

    "This is false and misleading ; According to NSA's independent Inspector General there have been only 12 substantiated cases of willful violations over 10 years, essentially one per year."

    So, am I the first to call "bollocks" on this? Perhaps there are only 12 cases the NSA will tell us about cos all those people have already left, most likely just cos people leave their jobs and go to different ones. The others who have done this will be fine and nothing will happen. In the past the Met Police (and Merseyside Police and most likely every other UK Police agency) have had massives problem with this, and have had to work very hard to clamp down on officers carrying out PNC checks on prospective partners / neighbours / people who annoy them in traffic. Suggesting that a US Agency, where breaking the law is secondary in nature, has no problem and never has had is complete bollocks.

    1. dan1980

      The problem is the level of importance these agencies place on the privacy of the public.

      Police departments are forced to place more importance on this because they are far more open in nature. It's no surprise at all that the more secretive and protected an organisation, the less emphasis they place on protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the public.

      What it shows is that these agencies don't actually care for doing 'the right thing' - they just don't want to be caught. The greater the possibility of being caught breaching the public trust, the greater the more careful that agency will be to ensure it doesn't.

      That's why secret approvals by secret courts with no independent oversight will always result in abuses of trust and (at times quite gross) invasions of privacy.

  17. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    When *any* government says "Trust us" what should do?

    A) Expect you are about to be lied to

    B) Run like hell.

    C)Withdraw to your secret Montana bunker.

    D) All of the above.

    1. Titus Technophobe

      Re: When *any* government says "Trust us" what should do?

      Treat the statement with a degree of scepticism. That said if you believe in any of:

      The New World Order

      Area 51

      JFK etc

      you could try some of the above suggestions.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Generational change

    This sort of thing used to be called command or "management" failure (the latter by those career officers whose real mission was to remake themselves as highly paid corporate executives after retirement).

    There when that sort of thing used to get you fired, court-martialed, or both.

    So much for military discipline.

    Accountability has been completely banished in the interests of the stupid, the lazy and the downright evil.

  19. Kubla Cant Silver badge

    A female spy also admitted "it was her practice to enter foreign national phone numbers she obtained in social settings" to make sure she wasn't about to hop into bed with "shady characters"

    A wise precaution. It's a well-known fact in the espionage world that shady characters are always foreign nationals, usually swarthy, with thick accents (cf Boris and Natasha).

    Do we take it that this female spy would hop into bed with anyone who gave her a phone number in a social setting, just as long as he or she wasn't a foreign national?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Paris Hilton

      "I'm sorry, it's just not working out."

      "A female spy also admitted "it was her practice to enter foreign national phone numbers she obtained in social settings" to make sure she wasn't about to hop into bed with "shady characters""

      Can you imagine breaking up in anything less than an amicable matter with someone with access to these systems? Hell would hath no fury like a spook scorned.

      Paris, because her options for revenge (justified or not) are relatively limited by comparison

  20. Solly

    Not sure

    My computer is running slow, is it windows being a shit or am I about to get a knock on the door by a sexy female spook.....


  21. Old Handle

    While is it's good that these folks are no longer working in a capacity where they can spy on people willy-nilly, can anyone think of a good reason why they shouldn't also be criminally prosecuted for breaking wiretap laws?

    Not that I mean to suggest punishing a few designated scapegoats will go very far restore trust, but shouldn't misusing top secret interception technologies carry pretty serious consequences?

  22. Denarius Silver badge

    seems familiar

    cant recall which Roman emperor made the comment, but think it was a first century one. Informers are the curse of the empire. Nothing on Google that seems relevant anyway. Nothing changes, nothing new under sun. Hmm, 3000 years old that one. Still not learned to distrust pollies bearing promises of peace and security, have we ?

  23. paniscus

    What's the problem? Spying is one the oldest professions, and using the other oldest profession for honey traps is commonplace. For us cold war kids it was a regular lurid tabloid feature (pre-internet, pre-lurid sites like this) . I'm surprised it's not compulsory, why resign? Why be bothered? I'd sack them if they didn't.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    SIGINT is ok.

    I can trap it.

    It's SIGKILL that worries me.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    According to NSA's independent Inspector General there have been only 12 substantiated cases of willful violations over 10 years, essentially one per year.

    All this proves is that they couldn't find the evidence, I wonder why?

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