Spying on Americans by the super-secret National Security Agency is not only more widespread than President George W. Bush admits but is part of a concentrated, government-wide effort to gather and catalog information on U.S. citizens, sources close to the administration say.
Besides the NSA, the Pentagon, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and dozens of private contractors are spying on millions of Americans 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“It’s a total effort to build dossiers on as many Americans as possible,” says a former NSA agent who quit in disgust over use of the agency to spy on Americans. “We’re no longer in the business of tracking our enemies. We’re spying on everyday Americans.”
“It’s really obvious to me that it’s a look-at-everything type program,” says cryptology expert Bruce Schneier.
Schneier says he suspects that the NSA is turning its massive spy satellites inward on the United States and intentionally gathering vast streams of raw data from many more people than disclosed to date — potentially including all e-mails and phone calls within the United States.
But the NSA spying is just the tip of the iceberg.
Although supposedly killed by Congress more than 18 months ago, the Defense Advance Project Research Agency’s Terrorist Information Awareness (TIA) system, formerly called the “Total Information Awareness” program, is alive and well and collecting data in real time on Americans at a computer center located at 3801 Fairfax Drive in Arlington, Virginia.
The system, set up by retired admiral John Poindexter, once convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal, compiles financial, travel and other data on the day-to-day activities of Americans and then runs that data through a computer model to look for patterns that the agency deems “terrorist-related behavior.”
Poindexter admits the program was quietly moved into the Pentagon’s “black bag” program where it does escapes Congressional oversight.
“TIA builds a profile of every American who travels, has a bank account, uses credit cards and has a credit record,” says security expert Allen Banks. “The profile establishes norms based on the person’s spending and travel habits. Then the system looks for patterns that break from the norms, such of purchases of materials that are considered likely for terrorist activity, travel to specific areas or a change in spending habits.”
Patterns that fit pre-defined criteria result in an investigative alert and the individual becomes a “person of interest” who is referred to the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, Banks says.
Intelligence pros call the process “data mining” and that is something the NSA excels at as well says former NSA signals intelligence analyst Russell Tice.
“The technology exists,” says Tice, who left the NSA earlier this year.
“Say Aunt Molly in Oklahoma calls her niece at an Army base in Germany and says, ‘Isn’t it horrible about those terrorists and September 11th,'” Tice told the Atlanta Constitution recently. “That conversation would not only be captured by NSA satellites listening in on Germany — which is legal — but flagged and listened to by NSA analysts and possibly transcribed for further investigation. All you would have to do is move the vacuum cleaner a little to the left and begin sucking up the other end of that conversation. You move it a little more and you could be picking up everything people are saying from California to New York.”
The Pentagon has built a massive database of Americans it considers threats, including members of antiwar groups, peace activists and writers opposed to the war in Iraq. Pentagon officials now claim they are “reviewing the files” to see if the information is necessary to the “war on terrorism.”
“Given the military’s legacy of privacy abuses, such vague assurances are cold comfort,” says Gene Healy, senior editor of the CATO Institute in Washington.
“During World War I, concerns about German saboteurs led to unrestrained domestic spying by U.S. Army intelligence operatives,” says Healy. “Army spies were given free reign to gather information on potential subversives, and were often empowered to make arrests as special police officers. Occasionally, they carried false identification as employees of public utilities to allow them, as the chief intelligence officer for the Western Department put it, ‘to enter offices or residences of suspects gracefully, and thereby obtain data.’”
“There’s a long and troubling history of military surveillance in this country,” Healy adds. “That history suggests that we should loathe allowing the Pentagon access to our personal information.”
In her book Army Surveillance in America, historian Joan M. Jensen noted, “What began as a system to protect the government from enemy agents became a vast surveillance system to watch civilians who violated no law but who objected to wartime policies or to the war itself.”
“It’s a fucking nightmare,” says a Congressional aide who recently obtained information on the program for his boss but asked not to be identified because he fears retaliation from the Bush administration. “We’re collecting more information on Americans than on real enemies of our country.”
Sen. John Rockefeller says he raised concerns more than two years ago about increased spying on Americans but – as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee – could not share that concern with colleagues.
“For the last few days, I have witnessed the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney-General repeatedly misrepresent the facts,” Rockefeller said last week. When he was first briefed about the activity in 2003, we sent a handwritten note to Vice President Dick Cheney outlining his concerns.
“I am retaining a copy of this letter in a sealed envelope in the secure spaces of the Senate intelligence committee to ensure that I have a record of this communication,” Rockefeller told Cheney. However, Rockefeller says now, “my concerns were never addressed, and I was prohibited from sharing my views with my colleagues.”
Missouri Congressman William Clay worries that the Bush Adminstration is skirting the law by letting private contractors handle the data mining.
“The agencies involved in data mining are trying to skirt the Privacy Act by claiming that they hold no data,” said Clay. Instead, they use private companies to maintain and sift through the data, he said.
“Technically, that gets them out from under the Privacy Act,” he said. “Ethically, it does not.”