Tuesday, March 11, 2008

NSA Data Driftnets: Domestic Surveillance & Repression on a Massive Scale

When Iran-Contra felon John Poindexter was kicked to the curb in 2003, his career at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) may have been "terminated," but his domestic spying program, Total Information Awareness lives on under the rubric of the Bush regime's Terrorist Information Awareness.

Monday's Wall Street Journal carried an eye-opening piece rich with stunning revelations of a National Security Agency (NSA) program even more sinister than the one dreamed up by Ollie North's former boss.

As the Democratic-led House of Representatives prepares to vote on a bill that strips the American people of constitutional protections from warrantless wiretapping, the massive scale and intrusive character of these programs become alarmingly clear. The police state under construction by the Bush administration with the complicity of leading Democrats, is one where privacy is a thing of the past, a "quaint notion" like international law or prohibitions against torture.

While congressional and popular focus in the debate over FISA renewal revolves around the issue of retroactive immunity for telecom corporations, the more contentious question of NSA's role in analyzing mountains of data illegally collected by the communications giants for some dozen U.S. intelligence agencies is sorely lacking.

Siobhan Gorman writes,

According to current and former intelligence officials, the spy agency now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records. The NSA receives this so-called "transactional" data from other agencies or private companies, and its sophisticated software programs analyze the various transactions for suspicious patterns. Then they spit out leads to be explored by counterterrorism programs across the U.S. government, such as the NSA's own Terrorist Surveillance Program, formed to intercept phone calls and emails between the U.S. and overseas without a judge's approval when a link to al Qaeda is suspected.

The NSA's enterprise involves a cluster of powerful intelligence-gathering programs, all of which sparked civil-liberties complaints when they came to light. They include a Federal Bureau of Investigation program to track telecommunications data once known as Carnivore, now called the Digital Collection System, and a U.S. arrangement with the world's main international banking clearinghouse to track money movements.
The effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called "black programs" whose existence is undisclosed, the current and former officials say. ("NSA Domestic Spying Grows as Agency Sweeps Up Data," The Wall Street Journal, Monday, March 10, 2008, Page A1)

Last week, Brian Beutler at The Media Consortium reported that a new FISA whistleblower has stepped forward with information about a major wireless provider apparently granting the state unrestricted access to all of their customers' voice communications and electronic data via a so-called "Quantico Circuit." Quantico, Virginia is the site of major U.S. Marine, FBI and DEA installations. The brief report describes the sinister reach of these illegal surveillance operations. Babak Pasdar, a security consultant and CEO of Bat Blue Corporation, gave a signed affidavit to the Government Accountability Project. It is a very chilling read.

According to Beutler's summary, Pasdar describes how the FBI was allowed unfettered access to information about any mobile phone subscriber, including,

* listening in and recording all conversations en-mass;
* collecting and recording mobile phone data use en-mass;
* obtaining the data they accessed from their mobile phone (Internet access, e-mail, web);
* trending their calling patterns and other call behavior;
* identifying inbound and outbound callers;
* tracking all in and outbound calls;
* tracing the user's physical location
According to Gorman, the NSA gets access to data from telecommunications switches through the FBI:

It [NSA] also has a partnership with FBI's Digital Collection system, providing access to Internet providers and other companies. The existence of a shadow hub to copy information about AT&T Corp. telecommunications in San Francisco is alleged in a lawsuit against AT&T filed by the civil-liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, based on documents provided by a former AT&T official. In that lawsuit, a former technology adviser to the Federal Communications Commission says in a sworn declaration that there could be 15 to 20 such operations around the country. Current and former intelligence officials confirmed a domestic network of hubs, but didn't know the number. "As a matter of policy and law, we can not discuss matters that are classified," said FBI spokesman John Miller.

Ominously, when a "terrorist" suspect is believed to be in a U.S. city, Gorman uses Detroit as an example, "a community with a high concentration of Muslim Americans," the surveillance driftnet may be directed to "collect and analyze" all electronic communications into and out of the city.

This is nothing less than the architecture that enables an Orwellian police state to spy on millions of Americans and squelch dissent. While NSA shills and congressional hacks such as Senator Kit Bond (R-MI), portray NSA as directing its tentacles against "al-Qaeda," prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Afghan-Arab database was given virtual free reign as they plotted mass murder in the United States.

According to Paul Thompson at the History Commons (formerly the Center for Cooperative Research) key members of the 9/11 plot were surveilled by NSA and yet, there was no concerted effort whatsoever to prevent bin Laden's "Martyrdom Battalion" from wrecking havoc. Thompson reports,

On March 20, 2000, either Khalid Almihdhar or Nawaf Alhazmi used a phone registered to Alhazmi to make a call from San Diego to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana'a, Yemen, run by Almihdhar's father-in-law. The call lasted 16 minutes. According to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, the call was intercepted by the NSA, which had been intercepting Alhazmi and Almihdhar's calls for over a year, but the FBI was not informed of the hijackers' presence in the US. The call is only briefly mentioned as a family phone call by the 9/11 Commission in a endnote, and it is not mentioned that the call was monitored.

In other words, NSA did "connect the dots," as did the CIA and FBI and choose instead to do nothing--if by "nothing" one means protecting "certain foreign interests" as Sibel Edmonds avers, say rich Saudi sheiks, subversive CIA/Pentagon operations in the Balkans, or destabilization operations against Russia in Chechnya.

But as Bill Van Auken writes,

Like the Republicans, the Democratic leadership fully accepts the legitimacy of the overall framework of "national security" and the "global war on terrorism" used to justify the illegal spying carried out against the American people.

Whatever concerns they have expressed about this program, none of the leading Democrats have pointed to the obvious danger--that the massive intelligence being collected by the administration will be used to prepare wholesale repression under conditions in which social polarization, economic crisis and mass opposition to war will create political upheavals. ("Massive NSA operation exposed as Congress prepares vote on domestic spying bill," World Socialist Web Site, 11 March 2008)

It's a small world and the political space for meaningful dissent is growing smaller by the day. Somewhere, John Poindexter must be smiling.

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