How the NSA tells the president what foreign governments are going to do before they do it

A leaked document from an internal NSA newsletter published Wednesday offers a look at how the spy agency is able to tell the president of the United States what a foreign government is going to do ahead of time.

The document — which was leaked by Edward Snowden and published by The Intercept — details a number of examples in which signals intelligence has been used to notify the White House of significant events. Though the newsletter was dated February 2004, it’s likely that the NSA has done similar work under President Barack Obama.

According to the newsletter, these were some of the NSA’s most “profound contributions” to the Bush administration:

  • The NSA offered intel to the White House a few days before the president was to give a speech to a foreign audience. The speech was changed as a result.
  • The NSA alerted a national security council official that a foreign representative was planning to call him later that afternoon, and also knew the subject matter of the call. The official used that intel to prepare.
  • The president’s national security adviser used intel gleaned from the NSA to prepare for a visiting head of state.

It’s an interesting look at how the sausage gets made when it comes to the intersection of intelligence and foreign policy. Though the newsletter doesn’t offer specifics on how it may have learned about incoming phone calls or interesting tidbits on foreign dignitaries, we know through the Snowden leaks that the agency is pretty good at tapping phones of foreign leaders and intercepting communications at international summits, for example.

Both of those specific agency exploits came under heavy criticism after embarrassing details were leaked in Snowden documents. Obama reportedly apologised to some after the revelations, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while others were slowly wooed back to his side.

The White House, at least in 2004, was happy with what the NSA was giving them. The newsletter mentions one ambassador telling colleagues who were planning to visit NSA headquarters in 2003, “Tell NSA that we love them!”

Though intelligence for the president’s daily brief comes from many different agencies, a significant portion has come from the NSA, especially its Prism program — a top secret program that tapped into the databases of a large portion of American technology companies.

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