Friday, May 19, 2006

Terrified

These NSA shenanigans should leave everyone a bit nervous about our government's most recent lurch towards secrecy and widespread domestic spying. As stated by NSA expert Matthew Aid, "we should all be terrified."

In an interview at Salon.com, intelligence historian Matthew Aid, a visiting fellow at George Washington University's National Security Archive and author of the first book of a three-volume history of the NSA, draws parallels between now and the discovery of NSA's Project Shamrock in 1976:

As fireworks showered New York Harbor that year, the country was debating a three-decades-long agreement between Western Union and other telecommunications companies to surreptitiously supply the NSA, on a daily basis, with all telegrams sent to and from the United States. The similarity between that earlier program and the most recent one is remarkable, with one exception -- the NSA now owns vastly improved technology to sift through and mine massive amounts of data it has collected in what is being described as the world's single largest database of personal information. And, according to Aid, the mining goes far beyond our phone lines.

The controversy over Project Shamrock in 1976 ultimately led Congress to pass the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other privacy and communication laws designed to prevent commercial companies from working in cahoots with the government to conduct wholesale secret surveillance on their customers. But as stories revealed last week, those safeguards had little effect in preventing at least three telecommunications companies from repeating history.


Here's the choice quote from the interview:

The fact that the federal government has my phone records scares the living daylights out of me. They won't learn much from them other than I like ordering pizza on Friday night and I don't call my mother as often as I should. But it should scare the living daylights out of everybody, even if you're willing to permit the government certain leeways to conduct the war on terrorism.

We should be terrified that Congress has not been doing its job and because all of the checks and balances put in place to prevent this have been deliberately obviated. In order to get this done, the NSA and White House went around all of the checks and balances. I'm convinced that 20 years from now we, as historians, will be looking back at this as one of the darkest eras in American history. And we're just beginning to sort of peel back the first layers of the onion. We're hoping against hope that it's not as bad as I suspect it will be, but reality sets in every time a new article is published and the first thing the Bush administration tries to do is quash the story. It's like the lawsuit brought by EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] against AT&T -- the government's first reaction was to try to quash the lawsuit. That ought to be a warning sign that they're on to something.

I'll tell you where this story probably will go next. Notice the USA Today article doesn't mention whether the Internet service providers or cellphone providers or companies operating transatlantic cables like Global Crossing cooperated with the NSA. That's the next round of revelations. The real vulnerabilities for the NSA are the companies. Sooner or later one of these companies, fearing the inevitable lawsuit from the ACLU, is going to admit what it did, and the whole thing is going to come tumbling down. If you want some historical perspective look at Operation Shamrock, which collapsed in 1975 because [Rep.] Bella Abzug [D-NY] subpoenaed the heads of Western Union and the other telecommunications giants and put them in witness chairs, and they all admitted that they had cooperated with the NSA for the better part of 40 years by supplying cables and telegrams.

The newest system being added to the NSA infrastructure, by the way, is called Project Trailblazer, which was initiated in 2002 and which was supposed to go online about now but is fantastically over budget and way behind schedule. Trailblazer is designed to copy the new forms of telecommunications -- fiber optic cable traffic, cellphone communication, BlackBerry and Internet e-mail traffic.

Check out the rest of the interview here. Glenn Greenwald has more on Senator Specter's craven cave-in on having the FISA court review the program's legality, and instead placing a new "standing" obstacle in the way of litigants challenging the illegal program (I previously discussed this standing problem here). Also check out Greenwald's breakdown of General Hayden's admission that the illegal NSA spying programs began with the understanding that they violated FISA, and without even the flimsy excuse that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force may allow the surveillance. Finally, Hunter at the Daily Kos explains the Nixon-esque aspect of the story, building off yet another excellent post from Billmon.

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