[Paleopsych] NYT: (NSA) The Agency That Could Be Big Brother
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Sat Jan 7 20:52:45 UTC 2006
The Agency That Could Be Big Brother
By JAMES BAMFORD
DEEP in a remote, fog-layered hollow near Sugar Grove, W.Va., hidden by
fortress-like mountains, sits the country's largest eavesdropping bug.
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
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
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',
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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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