Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Program: US Domestic Surveillance

I am currently reading an enlightening book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen (2006). This book right now is one of the many reasons for my constant anger. Chapter 2 is called “The Program”.

“The Program”, as it is referred to by “the very few people at the Justice Department who are aware of its existence,…may be the largest domestic spying operation since the 1960s, larger than anything conducted by the FBI or CIA inside the United States since the Vietnam War.” The Program is conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA).

On 16 December 2005, the New York Times printed a story which claimed that the NSA had been, without warrants, eavesdropping on phone calls of persons in the United States to persons outside the United States. James Risen is one of the two reporters who broke that story. The claims in Risen’s book go a lot further.

According to Risen, the NSA is now listening to up to 500 phone calls at any given time. In early 2002, President Bush secretly authorised the NSA to monitor telephone, email and other internet traffic inside the United States and without obtaining warrants. As we all know, this is against the law and specifically violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The legal opinions produced by Bush administration lawyers, as well as other documents which support the Program, remain classified.

The Bush administration does not publicly discuss the Program, but it was hinted at by the Justice Department in an obscure legal brief in an unrelated court case in 2002.

…the Constitution vests in the president inherent authority to conduct warrantless intelligence surveillance (electronic or otherwise) of foreign powers or their agents, and Congress cannot by statute extinguish that constitutional authority.

Foreign agents, of course, can be anywhere, even within the territory of the United States and so, according to the administration’s justification, the Program is essential to preventing terrorist activities.

Americans are generally not aware of the “extremely close relationships” between the NSA and the telecommunications and computer industries. Knowledge of such relationships is limited to a very few people at the highest levels in the individual corporations. The relationships themselves enable the surveillance.

One of the reasons for the Program, as told to Risen, is that telecommunications and email, even when originating and being received in two countries outside of the US, often go through switches which are inside the US, which then makes the communications “domestic” within the meaning of intelligence gathering regulations, and therefore protected. The fact of US-based switches makes the illegal eavesdropping easier for the NSA, and their access to international communications also allows them access to purely domestic communications.

According to Risen, the NSA is listening to transit calls (those that are only routed through the US), calls that originate in the US to individuals overseas, and calls within the US. The same applies to emails and other internet communications (but probably reading rather than listening). Risen was told by defenders of the Program that the NSA makes efforts to minimise their monitoring of domestic communications traffic amongst American citizens, but there is no way to confirm that.

With its direct access to the US telecommunications system, there seems to be no physical or logistical obstacle to prevent the NSA from eavesdropping on anyone in the United States that it chooses.

As the CIA captured al-Qaeda operatives overseas beginning in 2002, they seized the operatives’ computers, mobile phones and whatever else they had. The CIA turned over to the NSA all of the phone numbers and email addresses that they had thus acquired. The NSA began monitoring those telephone numbers and email accounts and then the numbers and emails contacted by the first set of numbers and emails and then those contacted by the second set and so on. Within the theory of six degrees of separation, it was not long before the NSA had “cause” to monitor us all.

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