February 17, 2014

Dutch government tried to hide the truth about metadata collection

(Updated: August 9, 2017)

On February 4, the Dutch government admitted that it was not NSA that collected 1,8 million metadata from phone calls of Dutch citizens, but actually their own military intelligence service MIVD. They gathered those data from foreign communications and subsequently shared them with partner agencies like NSA.

Just like everyone else, the Dutch interior minister was mislead by how Glenn Greenwald erroneously interpreted the data shown in screenshots from the NSA tool BOUNDLESSINFORMANT. This let him misinform the Dutch public and parliament too, and only after being faced with a lawsuit, he finally disclosed the truth. Here's the full story.

How it started

The first charts from the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT tool were published by the German magazine Der Spiegel on July 29, 2013. Next to a bigger chart about Germany was a smaller one about the Netherlands, but this was completely overseen by Dutch media.

Only after the French paper Le Monde came with a big story about alleged NSA eavesdropping on French citizens on October 20, 2013, the Dutch IT website Tweakers.net published on October 21 about the screenshot that was in Der Spiegel several months before:

The report by Tweakers.net was correct in explaining that the chart only shows metadata, but the headline initially read "NSA intercepted 1.8 million phonecalls in the Netherlands". It was the first time a news medium correctly presented the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT chart as showing metadata instead of content.

But as the initial headline had immediatly been copied by other media, many people, including politicians, got the idea that NSA was actually eavesdropping on a vast number of Dutch phone calls. After discussing this on Twitter, Tweakers corrected the title by adding "metadata" and "per month".

> See also: BOUNDLESSINFORMANT only shows metadata

A talkative minister

On the night of October 22, the Dutch interior minister Ronald Plasterk was asked about these revelations in the late night talk show Pauw & Witteman. He gave a clear explanation about what metadata are used for, and guessed that with around 60.000 phone calls per day between the Netherlands and the United States, this would make 1,8 million calls per month - apperently assuming that numbers of metadata equals phone calls.

He said that he wasn't yet certain whether it was actually NSA that collected those metadata from Dutch phonecalls, but that a European group of experts was established to clarify this with the Americans. The minister said that it would not be acceptable if NSA was monitoring Dutch citizens without asking permission from the Dutch government before doing so.

According to a statement by the interior minister during the parliamentary debate on February 11, 2014, it was only by now that AIVD and MIVD started communicating with NSA about the exact origins of these particular data. It would last 4 weeks to get this clear - rather quick, according to the minister.
(286e minuut)

Before this bilateral investigation was initiated, it seems that the Dutch government was relying on the work of a multinational group of experts on behalf of 27 European countries. This ad hoc EU-US Working Group was established in July 2013 to examine the NSA spying programs. Their final report (pdf) was published on November 27.

Besides this group of experts, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament also started an inquiry in September 2013, presented preliminary conclusions on December 18 and a final report (pdf) on February 21.

Dutch interior minister Ronald Plasterk in the talk show Pauw & Witteman
(October 22, 2013 - in Dutch)

Almost one week later, on October 28, the Spanish paper El Mundo also published a screenshot from BOUNDLESSINFORMANT. The article, written by Glenn Greenwald and a Spanish journalist, once again said the chart proved that NSA had spied on 60 million phonecalls from Spain in one month.

This was the standard interpretation that Greenwald gave to BOUNDLESSINFORMANT charts for Germany, France, Spain, Norway, Afghanistan and Italy. He used them to demonstrate the claim made by Edward Snowden, that NSA is eavesdropping on innocent people everywhere in the world.

By framing the public debate in this way, most people, including politicians, assumed these claims were true, and therefore it was for example the Dutch interior minister, responsible for the civilian intelligence and security service AIVD, who was asked for explanation. Only people familiar with Dutch intelligence knew that SIGINT collection is actually done by the NSO, which is part of the military intelligence agency MIVD.

NSA strikes back

On October 29, NSA director Keith Alexander testified before a hearing of the House intelligence committee. He forcefully denied that NSA was collecting millions of phone calls from European countries by saying "Those screenshots that show or at least lead people to believe that we, NSA, or the US, collected that information is false".

Instead, data shown in charts from the Snowden document were collected not just by the NSA itself, but were also "provided to NSA by foreign partners," Alexander said. "This is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations". The next day, this statement was also sent to European partner agencies, including AIVD.

The same day, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to US officials, the metadata records for France and Spain were not collected by the NSA, but by French and Spanish intelligence services. The metadata were gathered outside their borders, like in war zones, and then shared with NSA.

Then, interior minister Plasterk was invited to appear in the Dutch television news magazine Nieuwsuur on October 30. According to a reconstruction by the newspaper NRC Handelsblad, he was advised by Defense minister Hennis-Plasschaert not to go, because her department, responsible for Dutch SIGINT collection through the MIVD, was irritated by Plasterk's willingness to talk about this issue.

Before going to Nieuwsuur, Plasterk had a meeting with Marc Kuipers, the deputy director of his own AIVD and asked him about the metadata. He was told that there was no hard evidence that the statement of NSA was correct, and Kuipers reportedly denied that the 1,8 million metadata were collected by Dutch agencies. As their research started just a week before, AIVD apparently wasn't sure yet about the exact origins of these data (it took the German BND only a week to find out that they collected the 'German' metadata *)

During the Nieuwsuur broadcast, minister Plasterk showed the letter with the statement from general Alexander, but completely misinterpreted it as being a confirmation that the number of 1,8 million metadata were actually collected by NSA - something that was not acceptable for him. He also strongly denied that the 1,8 million were collected by Dutch agencies and subsequently shared with NSA.

Dutch interior minister Ronald Plasterk in the television
magazine Nieuwsuur, October 30, 2013

A few weeks later, NRC Handelsblad announced that they would soon start disclosing Snowden documents related to the Netherlands. NSA watchers expected that one of the first disclosures would be the complete BOUNDLESSINFORMANT screenshot, including the bottom part showing the technical specifications. But that didn't happen. NRC published two articles, on November 23 and November 30, but both contained more background information than spectacular new revelations about the Netherlands.

Most surprising was that the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT screenshot wasn't published. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that this weblog explained on November 23, that Greenwald's interpretation of these charts was not correct, which became clear after comparing two screenshots published by Greenwald in a Norwegian paper in the days before.

A few days later, on November 27, I published my research revealing that the DRTBox technique used to collect the metadata shown in the charts about France, Spain, Italy, Norway and Afghanistan is mainly used for short-range radio and cell phone interception during military operations.

Not NSA, but MIVD

These analysis not only support the official statement by NSA, but also confirm what the intelligence agencies from Germany and Norway had said earlier: that the metadata shown in the charts were collected by them as part of military operations abroad, and not by NSA (exactly the same was said by the Danish military intelligence service, anticipating on a chart about Denmark that never came).

After an investigation of exactly 4 weeks, experts from AIVD and MIVD, who compared actual data collected by the SIGINT unit NSO with data in the systems of their counterparts from NSA, concluded that there was a "perfect match". This was shared with defense minister Hennis and interior minister Plasterk on November 22. Prime minister Mark Rutte was informed during a regular meeting on December 10.

After it became clear that the metadata were not collected by NSA, but by the Dutch agency MIVD, the whole issue automatically became something that was not in the interest of the state to disclose (although not a formal state secret). The interior and the defense minister argued about whether to inform parliament and the public, like in Germany and Norway, but ultimately decided not to do so, following the standard practice to Never Say Anything about the modus operandi of the intelligence and security services.

This is a rather strange argumentation, as "collecting and sharing (meta)data" doesn't reveal any specific methods or operations. Both practices are regularly mentioned in the public reports of MIVD and the oversight committee CTIVD. But as almost no one reads these, the parliament and the people still thought it was NSA that monitored their phone calls.

Presently, it's still not clear whether or not the government informed the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee (CIVD or Commissie Stiekem), because ministers and members aren't even allowed to mention which topics were discussed during the committee meetings.
Update #1:
According to an article from February 18, 2014 by NRC Handelsblad, defense minister Hennis and the head of MIVD informed the parliamentary oversight committee on December 12, 2013 by saying that the telephony data were collected by Dutch services and shared with NSA. Apparently, this wasn't linked to minister Plasterk's statement from October 30, so most of the committee members weren't aware of the political impact.

Update #2:
In November 2015, it came out that already on March 13, 2014, the chairman of the CIVD had asked for a police investigation into which member leaked to NRC that the committee had actually been informed. As the police isn't authorised to charge members of parliament, they handed over the case to the presiding committee of the Lower House of Parliament, which started its own investigation into the leak on November 12, 2015.

Members of the intelligence oversight committee CIVD or Commissie Stiekem
leaving the conference room after a meeting on February 18, 2014
(still from the Nieuwsuur TV magazine)

Citizens against the State

But then there was a lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of citizens and organizations against the Dutch state, as represented by the interior minister. It aims at stopping Dutch intelligence agencies acquiring data from NSA that might be obtained illegally if Dutch and European law would apply. Furthermore, the coalition demands that the state informs the citizens whose illegally obtained data have been used.

Faced with the possibility of a court ruling that acquiring foreign intelligence might be illegal, which would de facto end the intelligence sharing relationships with foreign countries, the Dutch government was forced to reply. So on February 4, 2014, the state advocate came with a response (pdf), which contains two interesting points:
- The demands are mainly based upon press reports speaking of intercepted phone calls, which is incorrect, because in fact it's not about content, but about metadata. These are collected by the state, lawfully acquired in the context of international cooperation and subsequently passed on to other countries. (par. 6.2)

- Dutch intelligence services are using data derived from undirected interception of cablebound communications by foreign agencies. This method is (still) prohibited in the Netherlands, but legal in the US, and therefore the state sees this as lawful acquisitions. (par. 2.17 - revealing that this is apparently one of the things that the Dutch get in return for the metadata they share)

Misleading the parliament

Now that the state advocate had disclosed the true nature of the 1,8 million, the interior and the defense minister also had to inform the parliament and the public. This was done by a short official statement saying:
"The graph in question points out circa 1.8 million records of metadata that have been collected by the National Sigint Organization (NSO) in the context of counter-terrorism and military operations abroad. It is therefore expressly data collected in the context of statutory duties. The data are legitimately shared with the United States in the light of international cooperation on the issues mentioned above."

This was exact the opposite of what interior minister Plasterk had said during the Nieuwsuur broadcast on October 30 and subsequently to parliament. He was accused of lying or at least witholding crucial information and now had to fear for his position.

On Saturday, February 8, the newspaper NRC Handelsblad published out of the blue the long-awaited complete BOUNDLESSINFORMANT screenshot regarding the Netherlands, including the bottom part which was seen now for the first time since the initial publication by Der Spiegel in August 2013:

The BOUNDLESSINFORMANT screenshot for the Netherlands
(picture by NRC Handelsblad - click to enlarge)

> See for all details about this chart: BOUNDLESSINFORMANT: metadata collection by Dutch MIVD instead of NSA

On February 11, there was a parliamentary debate about the whole issue. Interior minister Plasterk sincerely apologized for his misleading statements on October 30, saying that he just wanted to make sure to the public that it was not his own AIVD that eavesdropped on Dutch citizens.

This statement was hardly convincing, and many parliament members were not satisfied with the fact that he didn't correct his statement after he was informed about the truth on November 22. Both the interior and the defense minister continuously replied that it was not in the interest of the state to provide any more information.

Given this overstretched secrecy, it almost seemed a slip of the tongue when minister Plasterk explained that because "under different programs, different types of metadata are shared" it was not so easy to attribute the 1,8 million to collection by MIVD.

After a debate of almost 8 hours, most opposition parties voted against the interior minister, but that wasn't enough to force a resignation. However, the whole affair weakened his position, he can't afford new mistakes anymore.


With claims made by Edward Snowden that NSA is monitoring innocent civilians all over the world being spread by media for months, it's understandable that the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT charts were seen as evidence for American spying on European countries. Glenn Greenwald presented them in that way to major European newspapers and supported his interpretation by a FAQ document saying that this tool shows "How many records (and what type) are collected against a particular country".

But now that it has become clear this interpretation was false, it also reveals that Greenwald apparently relied solely on these few documents, and was unaware of what the charts really show. I think we have to assume that Snowden also had no idea about their factual context, let alone any experience with the program - if he had, it would be even worse.

The whole story about BOUNDLESSINFORMANT not only backfired upon Snowden and Greenwald, but also upon several European governments, for example the Spanish and the French ones, who fiercly protested against the alleged US spying on their countries, and of course the Dutch one, where interior minister Plasterk was almost forced to resign because of the misinterpretation of the BOUNDLESSINFORMANT chart.

In July 2017, a Dutch journalist involved with the Snowden revelations said on Twitter that the 1,8 million records represent some 12 million pieces of metadata (which means one record consists of at least 6 fields) and that the Dutch Ministry of Defence had confirmed that they were collected from Somalia.

Links and Sources
- Le Monde/BugBrother: La NSA n’espionne pas tant la France que ça
- DeCorrespondent.nl: Cees Wiebes over de internationale gevolgen van Plasterkgate
- Jan Dirk Snel: De Tweede Kamer heeft zelf boter op het hoofd – Over de zogenaamde affaire-Plasterk
- NetKwesties.nl: Onjuiste geheimhouding regering over AIVD/MIVD
- Cyberwar.nl: Broken oversight & the 1.8M PSTN records collected by the Dutch National Sigint Organization
- DutchNews.nl: The Netherlands, not USA, gathered info from 1.8 million phone calls
- NRC.nl: NSA hielp Nederland met onderzoek naar herkomst 1,8 miljoen
- Defensie.nl: MIVD: Interceptie van telecommunicatie
- VoiceOfRussia.com: Denmark admits to tapping phones in conflict zones abroad

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In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties