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Report: NSA was spying on Salt Lake City during Olympics

Deseret News Staff and Wire Reports

SALT LAKE CITY — The National Security Agency monitored all email and text communications out of Salt Lake City leading up to and during the 2002 Winter Olympics, according to media reports Wednesday. But a top Olympic official here tied into security concerns said he had no idea the data collection was occurring.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA worked with Qwest Communications International Inc. to collect text messages and email in the Salt Lake area during a six-month period surrounding the event.

The report, part of a detailed account in the Journal and similar NSA revelations in the Washington Post, came on the same day the NSA declassified three secret court opinions revealing how one of its surveillance programs scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans not connected to terrorism over three years.

It also revealed that the secret court ruled those actions unconstitutional and brought change. But that report was not directly tied to the Salt Lake Olympics surveillance, which was a decade earlier.

"We knew nothing about this, so it was a little surprising to read this, that there was that kind of surveillance activity," said Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

"We worked very closely with many security agencies, including the FBI, the Secret Service, FEMA, etc. And we were aware of many activities they were doing to keep people safe," Bullock said. "We were not aware of these, but we put everything in context. The Olympics had been targets of terrorism twice in the past, in Munich and Atlanta."

The 2002 Games occurred only five months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., prompting increased security at the Olympics.

Mark Molzen, a spokesperson for CenturyLink, formerly Qwest, told KSL Radio that no one currently working at CenturyLink has knowledge of Qwest operations at the time of the surveillance gathering reported by the Journal.

The changes to surveillance, released in the declassified reports Wednesday by the NSA, show that three senior U.S. intelligence officials realized the extent of the NSA’s inadvertent collection of Americans’ data from fiber-optic cables in September 2011.

One of the officials said the problem became apparent during internal discussions between NSA and Justice Department officials about the program’s technical operation.

“They were having a discussion and a light bulb went on,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The problem, according to the officials, was that the top secret Internet-sweeping operation, which was targeting metadata contained in the emails of foreign users, was also amassing thousands of emails that were bundled up with the targeted materials.

Because many Web-based mail services use such bundled transmissions, the official said, it was impossible to collect the targeted materials without also sweeping up data from innocent domestic U.S. users.

The officials did not explain why they did not prepare for that possibility when the surveillance program was created and why they discovered it only after the program was well underway.

Officials said that when they realized they had an American communication, the communication was destroyed. But it was not clear how they determined to whom an email belonged and whether any NSA analyst had actually read the content of the email. The officials said the bulk of the information was never accessed or analyzed.

As soon as the extent of the problem became clear, the officials said, the Obama administration provided classified briefings to both Senate and House intelligence committees within days. At the same time, officials also informed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which later issued the three 2011 rulings released Wednesday — with redactions — as part of the government’s latest disclosure of documents.

The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the program publicly.

The documents were declassified to help the Obama administration explain some of the most recent disclosures made by The Washington Post after it published classified documents provided by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden. One of the intelligence officials briefing reporters said the newly declassified documents should help explain “the reasons why people shouldn’t go into a panic over articles they read in the press.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper authorized the release of the report, part of which Obama administration officials acknowledged Wednesday was prodded by a 2011 lawsuit filed by an Internet civil liberties activist group.

The court opinions show that when the NSA reported its inadvertent gathering of American-based Internet traffic to the court in September 2011, the FISA court ordered the agency to find ways to limit what it collects and how long it keeps it.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA’s surveillance system can reach about 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic, citing interviews with “current and former intelligence and government officials and people from companies that help build or operate the systems, or provide data.”

Contributing: Andrew Wittenburg, Cleon Wall; Kimberly Dozier, The Associated Press.