Monday, January 26, 2009

Why The NSA Spies On All Americans

Simple. Because it's much easier to record all digital communication signals than to triage them in real time. Voices and keystrokes are converted to bits which pass through surprisingly few central nodes, so "wiretapping" doesn't technically apply any longer. That's the dodge. "Monitoring" would be more like it. "Digital processing" more accurate.

You can perform some semantic analysis in real time, catch data clusters, link them to related meta-data and examine for relationships. When you find fishy stuff, you pass the suspects over to a financial transaction analysis program. If you get flags there, too, you put ears and maybe eyeballs on them and scrutinize for terrorist ties and activities. Then the optical disk slides back in place, you add the result string into the data pool so it can learn, you file report and cover butt.

The first problem with eavesdropping is intuitively obvious: it's useless if the bad guys know it's happening. The primary value is against unsuspecting people who think their communications are secure. Which brings us to the second problem, one painfully un-obvious to Americans: having the tools guarantees they'll be used against law-abiding citizens, political opponents, competitors, celebrities, defense lawyers. It's not "warrantless wiretapping." It's a huge expert system under ongoing development which can be used to drill back into anyone's communications:
National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice, who helped expose the NSA's "warrantless wiretapping" in December 2005, came forward on January 21st with more sallegations. Tice told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on Wednesday that the programs that spied on Americans were not only much broader than previously acknowledged but specifically targeted journalists.

The National Security Agency had access to all Americans' communications -- faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications," Tice claimed. "It didn't matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country, and you never made foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications."

Tice further explained that "even for the NSA it's impossible to literally collect all communications. ... What was done was sort of an ability to look at the metadata ... and ferret that information to determine what communications would ultimately be collected."

According to Tice, in addition to this "low-tech, dragnet" approach, the NSA also had the ability to hone in on specific groups, and that was the aspect he himself was involved with. However, even within the NSA there was a cover story meant to prevent people like Tice from realizing what they were doing.

"In one of the operations that I was in, we looked at organizations, just supposedly so that we would not target them," Tice told Olbermann. "What I was finding out, though, is that the collection on those organizations was 24/7 and 365 days a year -- and it made no sense. ... I started to investigate that. That's about the time when they came after me to fire me."

When Olbermann pressed him for specifics, Tice offered, "An organization that was collected on were US news organizations and reporters and journalists."

"To what purpose?" Olbermann asked. "I mean, is there a file somewhere full of every email sent by all the reporters at the
New York Times? Is there a recording somewhere of every conversation I had with my little nephew in upstate New York?"

Tice did not answer directly, but simply stated, "If it was involved in this specific avenue of collection, it would be everything." He added, however, that he had no idea what was ultimately done with the information, except that he was sure it "was digitized and put on databases somewhere."

Tice first began alleging that there were illegal activities going on at both the NSA and the
Defense Intelligence Agency in December 2005, several months after being fired by the NSA. He also served at that time as a source for the New York Times story which revealed the existence of the NSA's wireless wiretapping program.

Over the next several months, however, Tice was frustrated in his
attempts to testify before Congress, had his credibility attacked by Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, and was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in an apparent attempt at intimidation.

Tice is now coming forward again now because
George Bush is finally out of office. He told Olbermann that the Obama administration has not been in touch with him about his latest revelations, but, "I did send a letter to, I think it's [Obama intelligence adviser John] Brennan -- a handwritten letter, because I knew all my communications were tapped, my phones, my computer, and I've had the FBI on me like flies on you-know-what ... and I'm assuming that he gave the note to our current president -- that I intended to say a little bit more than I had in the past."
Until we define digital privacy rights, we live in a surveillance state and it will be very hard, Obama Administration or no, to fold this impertinent genie back into the bottle.


Vincent said...

It was my turn to make the breakfast but I read your post first and brooded over it in the kitchen, snatching a notebook to jot thoughts for a response, viz:

Bad guys—childish term—enemies—bad neighbour—enemies who are weaker than you”

I meant I was surprised at the use of a phrase redolent with the Bush era, where “axis of evil” was a playground insult, a taunt to the fellows you wished to challenge to a fight, so that you could appropriate their possessions. In the moral sense they weren’t as bad as some petty homegrown thugs and wifebeaters. In fact to their own side they might have been noble heroes. The fact was, they were “our enemies”. If you want bitter enemies, be a bad neighbour. And if you want your bitter enemies to act as terrorists, randomly killing your civilians, take care to be a bad neighbour to enemies weaker than you. In the Cold War, the Soviets had no need of suicide missions and anthrax-filled envelopes. They had the Bomb, and it was too big to use.

So I was full of these thoughts, despite their being rather ancillary to the thrust of your post.

The BBC news was on the radio, its big story being corrupt peers in the House of Lords.

As my wife sat down to breakfast and I started telling her my immediate agenda this morning: to tell Obama the way to make his country more secure. For I felt this surveillance was merely a symptom of something more profound which could not be shirked.

“And how are you going to tell Obama, dear?” she asked, patiently. “Oh, via the influential blog of someone who lives in Washington, a tireless campaigner, etc”. So I was just starting to tell her about not being a bad neighbour, and not picking on those weaker than you; whilst trying to gain monopoly control of her ears by turning down the radio. But she would have none of that and insisted we “listen the news”.

The BBC moved on to its next item: a speech by President Obama, proclaiming that “America is not the enemy of the Muslim world”.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I can cross that item off my morning’s agenda. He’s got the message already.”

Bruce said...

I too hope for the best to regarding foreign policy, but isn't Obama saying "America is not your enemy" the equivalent of Bush saying America is not the enemy of the Iraqi people just prior to bombing them?

In this case, the statement came after Obama approved of the bombing the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, killing 20, including several children. But it's the same idea.

Chris Floyd has more on Obama's "statements" to the Muslim world.

MarcLord said...


beautiful comment, and yes, Obama does get it as a person. As someone who hears the opinions of the most lethal force-projection business on the globe, however, he knows that talking with our military is like petting a tiger. He knows the same tiger ate JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, and RFK. Taming the tiger is impossible, killing it is unlikely, and he has to play with it for 2 hours every day.

May he wise up fast on the baby-killing missile strikes aimed at families who stole two goats from another family 50 years ago. That's how intelligence-gathering in that part of the world operates. A much longer wave-length than our receivers can transmit.

His pronouncement to Al-Jazeera is a good opening move. But the tiger demands meat, nothing less, and if denied it will turn on him. Its instincts are honed, its nose for blood flawless.

It is a horror that the tiger's best new distraction is the world's poorest "country," one which looks like easy meat, a limping calf with no defenders. How those appearances deceive. The strength of ignorance, genes and obstinance are not easily assailed.

The only way to subjugate Afghanistan is to herd all its people into reservations and settle it with vicious well-armed pioneers. Like America west of the Mississippi. Except no one else wants to live there.

For the tiger to crawl back to its den and whimper for its life, it must be mauled. There is no better place for that paradox to unfold than the graveyard of empire. Afghanistan.

While I hope in miracles, I also hope Obama is aware of military history. It's very unlikely we will change Afghanistan whatsoever, and utterly naive to think we will "win." It is a tiger pit, a bristle of stakes and pinions.

Victory there will look like this: Pakistan becomes India's problem. Afghanistan becomes Iran's problem. As they ever were, buffer zones between great cultures. Meanwhile, we are using UFOs to bomb third-world tribes from the 18th century and expect them to change. They aren't going to. I hope our tiger fails soon, and is chastened for quite some time.

MarcLord said...



As I started to respond to Vincent above, I started to respond to you. Obama is trapped in a way of business. A whole fail-safe apparatus. But he's a smart guy, and at some point he'll wave murder in the military's face. They're acting on bullshit, they are bullshit, they're killing people with no force projection capability, and the 19 "hijackers" are already dead.