[Paleopsych] NYT: (NSA) The Agency That Could Be Big Brother

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The Agency That Could Be Big Brother

    Private Lives

    DEEP in a remote, fog-layered hollow near Sugar Grove, W.Va., hidden by
    fortress-like mountains, sits the country's largest eavesdropping bug. 
Located in
    a "radio quiet" zone, the station's large parabolic dishes secretly and 
    sweep in millions of private telephone calls and e-mail messages an hour.

    Run by the ultrasecret National Security Agency, the listening post 
    all international communications entering the eastern United States. Another
    N.S.A. listening post, in Yakima,Wash., eavesdrops on the western half of 

    A hundred miles or so north of Sugar Grove, in Washington, the N.S.A. has
    suddenly taken center stage in a political firestorm. The controversy over
    whether the president broke the law when he secretly ordered the N.S.A. to 
    a special court and conduct warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens 
    even provoked some Democrats to call for his impeachment.

    According to John E. McLaughlin, who as the deputy director of the Central
    Intelligence Agency in the fall of 2001 was among the first briefed on the
    program, this eavesdropping was the most secret operation in the entire
    intelligence network, complete with its own code word - which itself is 

    Jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency," the N.S.A. was created in absolute
    secrecy in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. Today, it is the largest
    intelligence agency. It is also the most important, providing far more 
insight on
    foreign countries than the C.I.A. and other spy organizations.

    But the agency is still struggling to adjust to the war on terror, in which 
    job is not to monitor states, but individuals or small cells hidden all over 
    world. To accomplish this, the N.S.A. has developed ever more sophisticated
    technology that mines vast amounts of data. But this technology may be of 
    use abroad. And at home, it increases pressure on the agency to bypass civil
    liberties and skirt formal legal channels of criminal investigation. 
    created to spy on foreign adversaries, the N.S.A. was never supposed to be 
    inward. Thirty years ago, Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who was 
    chairman of the select committee on intelligence, investigated the agency 
    came away stunned.

    "That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people," 
    said in 1975, "and no American would have any privacy left, such is the
    capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it 
    matter. There would be no place to hide."

    He added that if a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A. "could enable it to 
    total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back."

    At the time, the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said 
    the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to 
    letters. But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in 
    messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and
    chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to 
    inside a person's mind.

    The N.S.A.'s original target had been the Communist bloc. The agency wrapped 
    Soviet Union and its satellite nations in an electronic cocoon. Anytime an
    aircraft, ship or military unit moved, the N.S.A. would know. And from 
    miles in orbit, satellites with super-thin, football-field-sized antennas
    eavesdropped on Soviet communications and weapons signals.

    Today, instead of eavesdropping on an enormous country that was always 
    and never moved, the N.S.A. is trying to find small numbers of individuals 
    operate in closed cells, seldom communicate electronically (and when they 
do, use
    untraceable calling cards or disposable cellphones) and are constantly 
    from country to country.

    During the cold war, the agency could depend on a constant flow of 
    Russian linguists from the many universities around the country with Soviet
    studies programs. Now the government is forced to search ethnic communities 
    find people who can speak Dari, Urdu or Lingala - and also pass a security
    clearance that frowns on people with relatives in their, or their parents',
    former countries.

    According to an interview last year with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the
    N.S.A.'s director, intercepting calls during the war on terrorism has become 
    much more complex endeavor. On Sept. 10, 2001, for example, the N.S.A.
    intercepted two messages. The first warned, "The match begins tomorrow," and 
    second said, "Tomorrow is zero hour." But even though they came from 
suspected Al
    Qaeda locations in Afghanistan, the messages were never translated until 
    the attack on Sept. 11, and not distributed until Sept. 12.

    What made the intercepts particularly difficult, General Hayden said, was 
    they were not "targeted" but intercepted randomly from Afghan pay phones.

    This makes identification of the caller extremely difficult and slow. "Know 
    many international calls are made out of Afghanistan on a given day? 
    General Hayden said.

    Still, the N.S.A. doesn't have to go to the courts to use its electronic
    monitoring to snare Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan. For the agency to snoop
    domestically on American citizens suspected of having terrorist ties, it 
    must to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA, make a
    showing of probable cause that the target is linked to a terrorist group, 
    obtain a warrant.

    The court rarely turns the government down. Since it was established in 
1978, the
    court has granted about 19,000 warrants; it has only rejected five. And even 
    those cases the government has the right to appeal to the Foreign 
    Surveillance Court of Review, which in 27 years has only heard one case. And
    should the appeals court also reject the warrant request, the government 
    then appeal immediately to a closed session of the Supreme Court.

    Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the N.S.A. normally eavesdropped on a small 
    of American citizens or resident aliens, often a dozen or less, while the 
    whose low-tech wiretapping was far less intrusive, requested most of the 
    from FISA.

    Despite the low odds of having a request turned down, President Bush 
    a secret program in which the N.S.A. would bypass the FISA court and begin
    eavesdropping without warrant on Americans. This decision seems to have been
    based on a new concept of monitoring by the agency, a way, according to the
    administration, to effectively handle all the data and new information.

    At the time, the buzzword in national security circles was data mining: 
    deep into piles of information to come up with some pattern or clue to what 
    happen next. Rather than monitoring a dozen or so people for months at a 
time, as
    had been the practice, the decision was made to begin secretly eavesdropping 
    hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people for just a few days or a week at a 
time in
    order to determine who posed potential threats.

    Those deemed innocent would quickly be eliminated from the watch list, while
    those thought suspicious would be submitted to the FISA court for a warrant.

    In essence, N.S.A. seemed to be on a classic fishing expedition, precisely 
    type of abuse the FISA court was put in place to stop.At a news conference,
    President Bush himself seemed to acknowledge this new tactic. "FISA is for
    long-term monitoring," he said. "There's a difference between detecting so 
we can
    prevent, and monitoring."

    This eavesdropping is not the Bush administration's only attempt to expand 
    boundaries of what is legally permissible.

    In 2002, it was revealed that the Pentagon had launched Total Information
    Awareness, a data mining program led by John Poindexter, a retired rear 
    who had served as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan and helped 
    the plan to sell arms to Iran and illegally divert the proceeds to rebels in

    Total Information Awareness, known as T.I.A., was intended to search through 
    data bases, promising to "increase the information coverage by an
    order-of-magnitude." According to a 2002 article in The New York Times, the
    program "would permit intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials to
    mount a vast dragnet through electronic transaction data ranging from credit 
    information to veterinary records, in the United States and internationally, 
    hunt for terrorists." After press reports, the Pentagon shut it down, and 
    Poindexter eventually left the government.

    But according to a 2004 General Accounting Office report, the Bush 
    and the Pentagon continued to rely heavily on data-mining techniques. "Our 
    of 128 federal departments and agencies on their use of data mining," the 
    said, "shows that 52 agencies are using or are planning to use data mining. 
    departments and agencies reported 199 data-mining efforts, of which 68 are
    planned and 131 are operational." Of these uses, the report continued, "the
    Department of Defense reported the largest number of efforts."

    The administration says it needs this technology to effectively combat 
    But the effect on privacy has worried a number of politicians.

    After he was briefed on President Bush's secret operation in 2003, Senator 
    Rockefeller, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on
    Intelligence, sent a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney.

    "As I reflected on the meeting today and the future we face," he wrote, 
    Poindexter's T.I.A. project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern 
regarding the
    direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology, 

    Senator Rockefeller sounds a lot like Senator Frank Church.

    "I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge," Senator Church
    said. "I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, 
and we
    must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this 
    operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross 
    that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."

    James Bamford is the author of "Puzzle Palace" and"Body of Secrets: Anatomy 
    the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."

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