Since September 11 2001, the US government has given a broad range of power to most three-letter agencies when it comes to sniffing out potential threats within the United States (and virtually unlimited power outside the US). This includes detaining individuals indefinitely without legal representation, seizure of personal/private banking accounts and warrantless wire-tapping regarding both landlines and mobile devices (Patriot Act, 2001). To make matters worse it was recently disclosed that the NSA (National Security Agency) has been conducting two ultra-secretive monitoring operations using cellphone and internet company’s real-time data and records. The joint NSA/FBI project is known as PRISM and has been in use since 2007 with participation from several popular tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Skype (among a host of others). The declassified information also points to mobile phone companies that have active participation in the NSA’s secretive data-mining program, which includes all the heavy hitters such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. While the disclosures may be shocking the question remains — whether or not that these practices actually prevent terrorist acts inside US borders at the cost of eroding civil liberties.
Figure 1: AT&T's secret server room 641A.
Back in 2004 AT&T technician Mark Klein took three documents home with him concerning illegal secret server rooms that were installed at the company’s various locations inside the US (most notably at the SBC Communications building in San Francisco in room 641A) at the behest of the NSA. Those documents were kept sealed by a federal court until 2007 when AT&T agreed to partially release the information due to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The papers contained wiring diagrams, equipment lists that included fiber-optic lines along with specialized server racks and most notably an NSA-provided Narus STA 6400 server capable of intercepting and analyzing internet traffic at incredible speeds. It is believed that AT&T has around 15 to 20 of these secret server rooms around the country and is/was being used by the NSA to monitor data passing through those hubs on a massive scale (about 10% of internet traffic within the US). In that same year, after a slew of lawsuits, Congress passed the Protect America Act along with the FISA Amendments Act (Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act) in 2008, which made private tech companies voluntarily involved with domestic intelligence collecting immune to prosecution. Since the servers routinely handle traffic from overseas sources, FISA judges deemed the warrantless data collection processes legal in regards to terrorist threats even when it concerned US citizens. The deliberations regarding those Acts were conducted in secret with little to information provided to the public of what took place in those deliberations were given (stated as classified).
Figure 2: Leaked slide from NSA presentation.
The classified PRISM program was leaked to the press by an unknown source (at the time – reveal later in this report) just one day after the news broke on classified court-ordered ruling to hand over the records of millions of Verizon users to the NSA (gives a whole new meaning to the motto ‘can you hear me now?’). According to the leaked order Verizon was to provide the NSA information on phone calls made through their systems on a daily basis. The information collected includes the phone numbers of both the caller and call recipient, how long the parties were on the line, location data and the time the phone call was made. According to the Obama administration, at no time were the calls actively monitored and neither was the nature of said calls as outlined in leaked document. That statement is a direct contradiction to the warrantless wiretapping laws of the Patriot Act that allows agencies to data-mine and listen-in to phone calls of ‘suspected home-brewed terrorists.’ Granted they are both separate Acts but the authorities have a habit of combining laws when they deem it necessary to accomplish certain goals. The leaked report detailed that the data collected from Verizon was and is being used to crosscheck information collected from around the globe to help identify the patterns of potential terrorists.
US citizens are not the only ones being spied on as certain news agencies and members of Congress are allegedly being targeted as well. In the recent ongoing hearings with the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder admitted the Justice Department signed off on subpoenaing AP (Associated Press) phone records as well as secretly seizing Fox News correspondent James Rosen’s personal emails. This was done under the guise of Rosen being a ‘co-conspirator’ with State Department security adviser Stephen Jin-Woo Kim who is being charged with handing classified reports on North Korea’s nuclear program to an AP reporter. When asked by Senator Mark Kirk (R-ILL) if the NSA has been intercepting congressional and Supreme Court Justices phone calls (during DOJ fiscal request hearing). Holder responded very cryptically stating that there was no intention of spying on members of Congress as well as members of the Supreme Court and would only answer questions regarding the issue in a classified setting (so much for the Obama administration’s remarks on transparency regarding government doings).
Edward Snowden (via the Guardian)
A few days after Holder gave his ambiguous answer, the ‘whistle-blower’ of both classified projects was identified as 29-year-old NSA contractor Edward Snowden who was until recently hold-up in a Hong Kong hotel. If this is starting to sound like an international intrigue novel, you’re correct. However, the key protagonist in this case is very underwhelming, especially when his qualifications are scrutinized. While he never finished high school, Snowden went on to ‘study computers’ at a community college while getting his GED while there. After leaving college he went on to join the Army reserves where he spent 4 months allegedly undergoing the grueling training to become a Special Forces operator. The self-proclaimed ‘spy’ stated he had been dropped from the military after having broken his legs during his recruit training to become one of America’s elite soldiers. After his Army reserve career came to an abrupt close he then went on to work as a security guard for the NSA (highly doubtful) and then transitioned to the CIA where he worked in IT. He then claims he left the CIA in 2009 and went to work as an IT security contractor for Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton. Both companies have been contracting with the NSA for quite some time and BAH subsequently released a statement that Snowden did indeed work at the Hawaii offices for less than 3 months. These revelations beg the question of how someone so underqualified (unless he’s some sort of computer genius) could be contracted by those three-letter agencies to work in the ‘red-light districts’ (rooms outfitted with red lights on the ceilings that are turned on when someone without a security classification is present so employees can hide sensitive information) of sensitive offices.
Whatever the case the documents have been leaked and they are startling to say the least that secretive information mining was/is being done not only on millions of American citizens but people all over the globe. The public reaction is also very startling as some are furious that this is being orchestrated against them even though they have done nothing wrong while others feel there is nothing wrong with the NSA’s practices and feel their secretive programs help to keep America safe. Essentially, trading a certain amount of civil liberties is worth the payoff of security in the long run. President Obama has stated that nobody is actively listening to everyone’s phone calls, however the data collected is ‘a modest encroachment on society’ but the trade-off came as ‘several terrorist attacks’ were thwarted because of those classified programs. Whether or not officials have prevented terrorist violence within the US is true or not (we’ll never know unless Congress holds hearings and makes them public) the impact of these revelations seem to have no consequences for the current administration.
(Left) Watergate complex (Via Elliot & LeBoeuf & Associates) (Right) Screenshot of the televised Richard Nixon resignation (Via CBS)
Some may remember that a previous president was caught doing something similar but on a scale much smaller in scope back in the 70s, which was known as Watergate. In 1972, Richard Nixon sent five former FBI and CIA personnel to break into the offices of the Democratic Party where they tapped phone lines and stole secret papers in an effort to get a leg-up on the competition. Those men were caught and the subsequent investigation found that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations he had with his aides about the scandal, which were later turned in to a grand jury. As a result of the illegal wire-tapping and paper heist, those aides and dozens of others were arrested and Nixon resigned the office (as opposed to being impeached) of the Presidency. That cannot happen today with President Obama, as the Patriot Act and other laws have insulated officials from prosecution as secretive wire-tapping of mobile phones and internet connections laws can fall under ‘National Security.’ While we may never know if the NSA’s classified projects are indeed making us safe and secure within our borders, the fact that our civil liberties are steadily being eroded since September 11 should be shocking to everyone in the United States as it was for those living back in 1972 under the Nixon presidency.
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