No Such Agency

There’s a new article over at Salon (an interview with historian Matthew Aid), concerning the recent revelations of NSA wiretapping. I’ve been following the controversy pretty closely. In fact, I just finished reading James Bamford’s opus, Body of Secrets, which is basically a history of the from it’s humble beginnings to it massive pre-9/11 decline. A new chapter is being written as we speak. After 9/11 the agency was given a new lease on life and huge influxes of cash and technology. The agency now has the capability to monitor, record and (well, this is the tricky part) analyze the phone calls of every single American citizen. Landlines and cellphones. Oh, and don’t forget your internet usage. If this blog isn’t in their database somewhere, I’d be a bit surprised.

So, that’s it; we’re fucked, right?

Not quite. You see, even though the NSA is the size of medium-sized city (around 60,000 people last I heard), and they measure their computing power in acres, not in flops, the NSA is not omniscient. The problem is that they’re drowning in data. Their intelligence gathering capabilities far outstrip their ability to actually analyze all that data and decide its usefulness.

That’s not to say I’m okay with the NSA spying on Americans. I’m not. It’s illegal, unconstitutional, immoral, repugnant and downright fascist. We need to end the spying programs immediately, and make sure they’re not simply transferred to another agency like the program was.

But we also shouldn’t lose our heads and assume that the government is hanging on our every word. In fact, they probably don’t have a human listen to your calls unless it’s been flagged for some reason or another.

Oh, and the whole bit about the NSA only logging the phone numbers you’ve called? Bullshit. They’re getting the whole enchilada. I’m betting that the calls themselves are captured, digitized, organized in a gigantic database, and voice-analyzed into searchable text. Then the agency’s “consumers” (the White House, FBI, CIA, DOD, etc.) can use the to search for specific keywords. If they want to hear more, they can probably pull up the entire audio clip of the call. I don’t know if they can do this from their PC, or if they need approval from agency guard higher-ups. Knowing the Bush administration, I’d bet Cheney has access to everything under the sun, available at his fingertips. I hope he liked my previous post.

This whole fiasco is not even a new occurrence. Read up on if you want to know more. The Church Committee shut Shamrock down 30 years ago, but it’s back and worse than before. Now the NSA has much more powerful computers to contend with an even greater influx of data. Their methodology for gathering data remains the same. They leaned heavily on telecom companies to voluntarily hand over the data. The abuses of power during Nixon’s time, as well as the revelations concerning Shamrock and led to the creation of the FISA Court and accompanying laws, which is now ignoring. History does indeed repeat itself.

Anyway, back to that Salon article I mentioned above. It seems that Matthew Aid disagrees with Bamford about what Echelon is. He claims it’s just a VAX microcomputer from the 70′s, made by DEC, that was used at various satellite intercept stations. This could be the case, but Bamford was quite clear that Echelon was a software program used by the UKUSA alliance to share and analyze intercept data. I think the confusion could be caused by the fact there are two different Echelons. It’s unclear to me if this is the case, however.

Aid goes on to explain how the Justice Department was systematically kept out of the loop and in the dark:

It’s all coming out now in dribs and drabs, but when it all becomes clear, we’ll find out that the key oversight functions — those functions that were put in place to protect the rights of Americans — were deliberately circumvented. Key components of the Justice Department that would have rightly objected to this were never consulted or told about the program. Alberto Gonzales when he was the White House counsel knew about it, as did Attorney General Ashcroft and his deputy, but outside of that I don’t think there were many others who knew all the details.

Perhaps somebody within Justice still has a conscience. That seems unlikely, but it’s our best hope if we want accountability. We need to investigate this program thoroughly. We can’t just believe Bush when he says, “trust me.” Trust is the last thing on my mind when I hear Bush speak.

Aid then discusses how Congress was also kept in the dark and hamstrung:

They can claim that they briefed individual members of Congress but there’s a difference between briefing a few members of Congress and briefing a full committee. Only a few members of the intelligence committee were told and they were told in a way in which they couldn’t do anything about it. And the briefings were very general and lacking in specifics, as I understand.

What happens is that you’re [privately] briefed about the program, and then even if you object to the program, you can’t do anything about it because you can’t tell the whole committee. Our system only works when information is given to the full committee. But the way they did it effectively handcuffed any opposition because you can’t go to the full committee and say I object to this program and we ought to call some hearings and examine the legalistic background and justification for the program. Even if Senator Rockefeller or Congresswoman Pelosi had some issues with it, they couldn’t even tell their own staff, much less other members of the committee. They deliberately did it this way so the intelligence committees couldn’t do anything about it.

Sounds pretty nasty, right? This way they can claim the Congress consented, when 99% of Congress was not even briefed and the 1% that was briefed has no chance to exercise any oversight. It’s a pretty good political trick. And I wonder how detailed those briefings were. Somehow I doubt they said, “We’re spying on Americans.” I bet it was more like, “In the interests of protecting the homeland from terrorists, we are enlarging the scope of our clandestine sigint monitoring programs in such a way to gather more accurate and up-to-the-minute intel on potential terrorist activities. Terror. Terrorist. Terrorism. Boo!!”

Of course, how would we ever know? The congresspeople in question are sworn to secrecy. Isn’t it great how secrecy eats away at democracy? We need secrets, yet by embracing secrecy we stray further and further from democracy because an uninformed population is unable to exercise sound judgment in electing its leaders. We have to remember that we are the true leaders of this country, not Bush and his ilk. Democracy is for us, not the leaders. Here we are surrenduring our liberty and privacy (without even knowing it) and this is what Aid says about the effectiveness of the wiretapping program:

To the best
of my knowledge, in the five years in which the program has been running, it has not caught a single person.

Pretty much says it all.


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