The newest revelations of even more spying on Americans by the uber-secret National Security Agency (NSA) is just part of a vastly-expanded operation that snoops daily into the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the United States.
My sources tell me that USA Today’s Thursday story revealing the NSA has collected phone call records of nearly all Americans for the past few years is only a fraction of a stepped up effort by the government to monitor, on a daily basis, the lives of ordinary American citizens who have nothing to do with terrorist plots and pose no threat to national security.
“It’s data mining at the most extreme levels,” says a former NSA operative who quit in disgust over the agency’s snooping into the private lives of Americans. “We have no business spying on our own.”
“Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with Al Qaeda?” Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking minority member, asked from the floor of the U.S. Senate Thursday.
Even some Republicans are reluctant to defend Bush on the latest revelations.
“I am concerned about what I read with regard to N.S.A. databases of phone calls,” says Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader, in an interview with The Associated Press.
“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” says one current NSA operative. “The agency’s goal is to create a database of every call ever made within the nation’s borders.”
This information, of course, directly contradicts President George W. Bush’s earlier claims that the NSA domestic spying program was directed only at overseas phone calls made by Americans.
Bush did not deny the expanded program when he set up a hastily-arranged appearance Thursday to try and deflect criticism but claimed the database was not a data mining operation.
“Of course it’s a data mining operation,” says security expert Sam Bellows. “Data mining is a major part of what the NSA does.”
Capitol Hill Blue in 2004 revealed a massive government data mining operation set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) along with the NSA. Our story detailed how DARPA’s Total Information Awareness Project, believed scrapped by Congressional action, was shifted into a secret Pentagon budget by the Bush administration and was actively collecting phone, travel and financial information on virtually all Americans.
The story prompted strong denials from the Bush Administration, which later backed off the denials when The New York Times revealed some of the same information a year later.
Georgetown University constitutional law Professor Jonathan Turley told us at the time the data mining operation by DARPA was illegal and says the new revelations venture further beyond the law.
“Federal law prevents the government from seeking this kind of information – including phone numbers – unless it has cause to believe a crime has been committed,” Turley says.
Data experts say gathering such vast amounts of information only increases the chances of making mistakes and unfairly accusing an innocent American of wrongdoing. Even worse, gathering such information only allows the government to snoop on American citizens while it does nothing to help fight terrorism.
“Terrorism is an adaptive problem,” Herb Edelstein, president of data-mining company Two Crows. said in an interview published by Wired News. “It’s pretty unlikely the next terrorist attack will be people hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings.”
Other experts agree the chances for mistakes are huge.
“The order of magnitude of errors from inferences is huge, something like ten to the third power,” Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and the chairman of information mapping software company Groxis, has said in interviews with other publications.
DARPA tried to interest Groxis in becoming part of the TIA project but the company declined, saying the project was neither feasible nor ethical. Hawken told Wired he knows people with the National Security Agency who refused to work on TIA because of ethical concerns.
Much of the current NSA project was established under the command of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, President Bush’s pick to head the CIA. Hayden’s increasing involvement also worries security experts and historians. Hayden has said he now has reservations about the NSA spying program and is willing to resign from the military if he is confirmed by the Senate.
“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.'”
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.”
The Army’s scandalous treatment of Iraqi prisoners also suggests the American military system lacks both the ability and the restraint to police itself.
“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.”
But each new revelation of increased spying on Americans shows privacy, like too many other freedoms once considered a right of American life, is yet another right lost in the Bush administration’s unrelenting, and illegal, war on the Constitution.