The documents describe an operation known as MILK COOKIES, based out of Fort Meade and run in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Service. COOKIES is the interception of the letters while MILK feeds them through a complex series of algorithms to spot any hidden messages.
Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander had previously testified to Congress in 2011 that the NSA would occasionally collect letters addressed to Santa, but insisted that it was totally accidental and that no one was actually reading or storing them.
The NSA is prohibited from directly monitoring American citizens under both Executive Order 12333 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, because the letters are addressed to the North Pole, which falls outside of U.S. territory, they are considered potential foreign intelligence signals which the NSA is authorized to intercept.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former senior administration official defended the program: ”We’re only looking for any unusual presents, like children who ask Santa for pressure cookers, large amounts of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, hyzadrine rocket fuel, things like that. I mean a six-year old with a hammer is bad enough; just try to imagine that same six-year old with a truck bomb.”
The leaked reports show that the NSA also routinely hacked Santa’s Naughty and Nice List for any information on world leaders, and at one point tried to smuggle surveillance devices disguised as lumps of coal into Santa’s sack. They also reveal the existence of a massive NSA data storage center at the North Pole, known as ELFCHELON, which dwarfs even the planned one at Utah, and is capable of storing letters dating back to 1952.
The documents were part of the massive data haul taken by fugitive whistleblower and Playgirl centerfold Edward Snowden, whom the former official referred to as “a very naughty boy.”