Ramblings & ephemera

The NSA and threats to privacy

From James Bamford’s “Big Brother Is Listening” (The Atlantic: April 2006):

This legislation, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, established the FISA court—made up of eleven judges handpicked by the chief justice of the United States—as a secret part of the federal judiciary. The court’s job is to decide whether to grant warrants requested by the NSA or the FBI to monitor communications of American citizens and legal residents. The law allows the government up to three days after it starts eavesdropping to ask for a warrant; every violation of FISA carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Between May 18, 1979, when the court opened for business, until the end of 2004, it granted 18,742 NSA and FBI applications; it turned down only four outright.

Such facts worry Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who worked for the NSA as an intern while in law school in the 1980s. The FISA “courtroom,” hidden away on the top floor of the Justice Department building (because even its location is supposed to be secret), is actually a heavily protected, windowless, bug-proof installation known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.

It is true that the court has been getting tougher. From 1979 through 2000, it modified only two out of 13,087 warrant requests. But from the start of the Bush administration, in 2001, the number of modifications increased to 179 out of 5,645 requests. Most of those—173—involved what the court terms “substantive modifications.”

Contrary to popular perception, the NSA does not engage in “wiretapping”; it collects signals intelligence, or “sigint.” In contrast to the image we have from movies and television of an FBI agent placing a listening device on a target’s phone line, the NSA intercepts entire streams of electronic communications containing millions of telephone calls and e-mails. It runs the intercepts through very powerful computers that screen them for particular names, telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and trigger words or phrases. Any communications containing flagged information are forwarded by the computer for further analysis.

Names and information on the watch lists are shared with the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, and foreign intelligence services. Once a person’s name is in the files, even if nothing incriminating ever turns up, it will likely remain there forever. There is no way to request removal, because there is no way to confirm that a name is on the list.

In December of 1997, in a small factory outside the southern French city of Toulouse, a salesman got caught in the NSA’s electronic web. Agents working for the NSA’s British partner, the Government Communications Headquarters, learned of a letter of credit, valued at more than $1.1 million, issued by Iran’s defense ministry to the French company Microturbo. According to NSA documents, both the NSA and the GCHQ concluded that Iran was attempting to secretly buy from Microturbo an engine for the embargoed C-802 anti-ship missile. Faxes zapping back and forth between Toulouse and Tehran were intercepted by the GCHQ, which sent them on not just to the NSA but also to the Canadian and Australian sigint agencies, as well as to Britain’s MI6. The NSA then sent the reports on the salesman making the Iranian deal to a number of CIA stations around the world, including those in Paris and Bonn, and to the U.S. Commerce Department and the Customs Service. Probably several hundred people in at least four countries were reading the company’s communications.

Such events are central to the current debate involving the potential harm caused by the NSA’s warrantless domestic eavesdropping operation. Even though the salesman did nothing wrong, his name made its way into the computers and onto the watch lists of intelligence, customs, and other secret and law-enforcement organizations around the world. Maybe nothing will come of it. Maybe the next time he tries to enter the United States or Britain he will be denied, without explanation. Maybe he will be arrested. As the domestic eavesdropping program continues to grow, such uncertainties may plague innocent Americans whose names are being run through the supercomputers even though the NSA has not met the established legal standard for a search warrant. It is only when such citizens are turned down while applying for a job with the federal government—or refused when seeking a Small Business Administration loan, or turned back by British customs agents when flying to London on vacation, or even placed on a “no-fly” list—that they will realize that something is very wrong. But they will never learn why.

General Michael Hayden, director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and now principal deputy director of national intelligence, noted in 2002 that during the 1990s, e-communications “surpassed traditional communications. That is the same decade when mobile cell phones increased from 16 million to 741 million—an increase of nearly 50 times. That is the same decade when Internet users went from about 4 million to 361 million—an increase of over 90 times. Half as many land lines were laid in the last six years of the 1990s as in the whole previous history of the world. In that same decade of the 1990s, international telephone traffic went from 38 billion minutes to over 100 billion. This year, the world’s population will spend over 180 billion minutes on the phone in international calls alone.”

Intercepting communications carried by satellite is fairly simple for the NSA. The key conduits are the thirty Intelsat satellites that ring the Earth, 22,300 miles above the equator. Many communications from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to the eastern half of the United States, for example, are first uplinked to an Intelsat satellite and then downlinked to AT&T’s ground station in Etam, West Virginia. From there, phone calls, e-mails, and other communications travel on to various parts of the country. To listen in on that rich stream of information, the NSA built a listening post fifty miles away, near Sugar Grove, West Virginia. Consisting of a group of very large parabolic dishes, hidden in a heavily forested valley and surrounded by tall hills, the post can easily intercept the millions of calls and messages flowing every hour into the Etam station. On the West Coast, high on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Okanogan River, near Brewster, Washington, is the major commercial downlink for communications to and from Asia and the Pacific. Consisting of forty parabolic dishes, it is reportedly the largest satellite antenna farm in the Western Hemisphere. A hundred miles to the south, collecting every whisper, is the NSA’s western listening post, hidden away on a 324,000-acre Army base in Yakima, Washington. The NSA posts collect the international traffic beamed down from the Intelsat satellites over the Atlantic and Pacific. But each also has a number of dishes that appear to be directed at domestic telecommunications satellites.

Until recently, most international telecommunications flowing into and out of the United States traveled by satellite. But faster, more reliable undersea fiber-optic cables have taken the lead, and the NSA has adapted. The agency taps into the cables that don’t reach our shores by using specially designed submarines, such as the USS Jimmy Carter, to attach a complex “bug” to the cable itself. This is difficult, however, and undersea taps are short-lived because the batteries last only a limited time. The fiber-optic transmission cables that enter the United States from Europe and Asia can be tapped more easily at the landing stations where they come ashore. With the acquiescence of the telecommunications companies, it is possible for the NSA to attach monitoring equipment inside the landing station and then run a buried encrypted fiber-optic “backhaul” line to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, where the river of data can be analyzed by supercomputers in near real time.

Tapping into the fiber-optic network that carries the nation’s Internet communications is even easier, as much of the information transits through just a few “switches” (similar to the satellite downlinks). Among the busiest are MAE East (Metropolitan Area Ethernet), in Vienna, Virginia, and MAE West, in San Jose, California, both owned by Verizon. By accessing the switch, the NSA can see who’s e-mailing with whom over the Internet cables and can copy entire messages. Last September, the Federal Communications Commission further opened the door for the agency. The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act required telephone companies to rewire their networks to provide the government with secret access. The FCC has now extended the act to cover “any type of broadband Internet access service” and the new Internet phone services—and ordered company officials never to discuss any aspect of the program.

The National Security Agency was born in absolute secrecy. Unlike the CIA, which was created publicly by a congressional act, the NSA was brought to life by a top-secret memorandum signed by President Truman in 1952, consolidating the country’s various military sigint operations into a single agency. Even its name was secret, and only a few members of Congress were informed of its existence—and they received no information about some of its most important activities. Such secrecy has lent itself to abuse.

During the Vietnam War, for instance, the agency was heavily involved in spying on the domestic opposition to the government. Many of the Americans on the watch lists of that era were there solely for having protested against the war. … Even so much as writing about the NSA could land a person a place on a watch list.

For instance, during World War I, the government read and censored thousands of telegrams—the e-mail of the day—sent hourly by telegraph companies. Though the end of the war brought with it a reversion to the Radio Act of 1912, which guaranteed the secrecy of communications, the State and War Departments nevertheless joined together in May of 1919 to create America’s first civilian eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, nicknamed the Black Chamber. By arrangement, messengers visited the telegraph companies each morning and took bundles of hard-copy telegrams to the agency’s offices across town. These copies were returned before the close of business that day.

A similar tale followed the end of World War II. In August of 1945, President Truman ordered an end to censorship. That left the Signal Security Agency (the military successor to the Black Chamber, which was shut down in 1929) without its raw intelligence—the telegrams provided by the telegraph companies. The director of the SSA sought access to cable traffic through a secret arrangement with the heads of the three major telegraph companies. The companies agreed to turn all telegrams over to the SSA, under a plan code-named Operation Shamrock. It ran until the government’s domestic spying programs were publicly revealed, in the mid-1970s.

Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who led the first probe into the National Security Agency, warned in 1975 that the agency’s capabilities

“could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it is done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capacity of this technology.”

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