The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Le Monde says this PowerPoint slide reveals massive U.S. spying. The NSA says that’s wrong.

At a House oversight hearing Tuesday, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander reiterated the agency's position that European media reports on the latest U.S. spying revelations are false. The stories, which appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde and Spain's El Pais, cited documents released by NSA leaker Edward Snowden in reporting that the United States had intercepted millions of phone calls of French and Spanish civilians. The documents apparently describe the U.S. as sucking in huge amounts of European phone calls, which would seem like an outrageous invasion of French and Spanish privacy.

As U.S. officials elaborated to the Wall Street Journal, their position is that "the Snowden-provided documents had been misinterpreted and actually show phone records that were collected by French and Spanish intelligence agencies, and then shared with the NSA." In other words, the U.S. case is that the NSA didn't intercept those phone calls; French and Spanish intelligence agencies did. They also say, according to the Journal, that the phone records came from people "in war zones and other areas outside their borders" and were passed on to the NSA "as part of efforts to help protect American and allied troops and civilians."

So what do these documents actually look like? Of the two European outlets, only Le Monde published any of the Snowden-linked files, a single PowerPoint slide, which it annotated. Here's the document, followed by my rough translation of Le Monde's annotations. It's a bit tough to see in this view; click the image to see a larger and easier-to-read version.

The chart allegedly shows how many French phone calls were intercepted by the NSA every day for a month, from Dec. 10 to Jan. 8. Each green bar represents the number of calls intercepted on that day; they range as high as 7 million in a single day.

Le Monde's first annotation appears over the top-left title, "France – Last 30 Days." Le Monde's annotation says that this is a document from the program Boundless Information, summarizing telephone data that were intercepted in this 30-day span. The annotation clarifies that the document does not specify the nature or exact origin of the intercepted phone data, adding that this is more of a presentation slide than an analytical document.

The second annotation appears over the chart body, during the week in late December and early January where there are no green bars. It says that this gap is because FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was being renewed in this period.

Strangely, U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to the Journal say they don't believe that this document was actually put together by the NSA at all. They say it "appears to be a slide that was assembled based on NSA data received from French intelligence." It's not clear who they believe assembled it.

While U.S. officials and Alexander in particular obviously have a vested interest in playing down any diplomatic damage incurred by these stories, this reaction would seem to be an unusually strong and direct rebuke of the initial stories in Le Monde and El Pais.

If the U.S. officials are right, this would not be the first time that the American public's understanding of an NSA program revealed by Snowden would have shifted dramatically because of changing evaluations of the documents on which those leaks were based. It's a reminder that big, complicated NSA programs can look very different depending on how we read the documents being parceled out by Snowden and his backers -- and how those documents are initially portrayed.