The reports mostly emanate from a cache of top secret documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which he obtained whilst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest contractors for defense and intelligence in the United States.
In addition to a trove of U.S. federal documents, Snowden’s cache reportedly contains thousands of Australian, British and Canadian intelligence files that he had accessed via the exclusive “Five Eyes” network.
In June 2013, the first of Snowden’s documents were published simultaneously by The Washington Post and The Guardian, attracting considerable public attention.
The disclosure continued throughout 2013, and a small portion of the estimated full cache of documents was later published by other media outlets worldwide, most notably The New York Times (United States), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Der Spiegel (Germany), O Globo (Brazil), Le Monde (France), L’espresso (Italy), NRC Handelsblad (the Netherlands), Dagbladet (Norway), El País (Spain), and Sveriges Television (Sweden).
These media reports have shed light on the implications of several secret treaties signed by members of the UKUSA community in their efforts to implement global surveillance.
For example, Der Spiegel revealed how the German Federal Intelligence Service (German: Bundesnachrichtendienst; BND) transfers “massive amounts of intercepted data to the NSA”, while Swedish Television revealed the National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) provided the NSA with data from its cable collection, under a secret treaty signed in 1954 for bilateral cooperation on surveillance.
Other security and intelligence agencies involved in the practice of global surveillance include those in Australia (ASD), Britain (GCHQ), Canada (CSE), Denmark (PET), France (DGSE), Germany (BND), Italy (AISE), the Netherlands (AIVD), Norway (NIS), Spain (CNI), Switzerland (NDB), Singapore (SID) as well as Israel (ISNU), which receives raw, unfiltered data of U.S. citizens that is shared by the NSA.
In November 2013, a criminal investigation of the disclosure was being undertaken by Britain’s Metropolitan Police Service.
In December 2013, The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said: “We have published I think 26 documents so far out of the 58,000 we’ve seen.”
The extent to which the media reports have responsibly informed the public is disputed.
In January 2014, Obama said that “the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light” and critics such as Sean Wilentz have noted that many of the Snowden documents released do not concern domestic surveillance.
The US & British Defense establishment weigh the strategic harm in the period following the disclosures more heavily than their civic public benefit.
Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ, described Snowden’s disclosure as the “most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever”.