NSA’s spying machine: Too big, too complex to understand

NSA headquarter at Fort Meade
NSA headquarter at Fort Meade

The surveillance machine grew too big for anyone to understand.

The National Security Agency set it in motion in 2006 and the vast network of supercomputers, switches and wiretaps began gathering Americans’ phone and Internet records by the millions, looking for signs of terrorism.

But every day, NSA analysts snooped on more American phone records than they were allowed to. Some officials searched databases of phone records without even realizing it. Others shared the results of their searches with people who weren’t authorized to see them.

It took nearly three years before the government figured out that so much had gone wrong. It took even longer to figure out why.

Newly declassified documents released Tuesday tell a story of a surveillance apparatus so unwieldy and complex that nobody fully comprehended it, even as the government pointed it at the American people in the name of protecting them.

“There was no single person who had a complete technical understanding,” government lawyers explained to a federal judge in 2009.

During a summer in which former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden released America’s surveillance secrets to the world, the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to reassure people that the NSA’s powers were kept in check by Congress and the courts. The mistakes discovered in 2009 have been fixed, the president said, a reflection of that oversight.

But the documents from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court show that, in developing the world’s most sophisticated surveillance network, even senior lawyers and officials weren’t sure how the system worked and didn’t understand what they were told.

“It appears there was never a complete understanding among the key personnel . regarding what each individual meant by the terminology,” lawyers wrote in March 2009 as the scope of the problems came into focus.

As a result, the judges on the surveillance court, who rely on the NSA to explain the surveillance program, approved a program that was far more intrusive than they believed.

“Given the executive branch’s responsibility for and expertise in determining how best to protect our national security, and in light of the scale of this bulk collection program, the court must rely heavily on the government to monitor this program,” Judge Reggie B. Walton wrote in a 2009 order that found the NSA had repeatedly misrepresented its programs.

In Congress, meanwhile, only some lawmakers fully understand the programs they have repeatedly authorized and are supposed to be overseeing. For instance, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the sponsors of the USA Patriot Act, has said he never intended it to be used to collect and store the phone records of every American.

And when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked whether the government was doing that, he testified, “No.” Yet Snowden’s revelations, published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, show that is what happened.

There is no evidence in the new documents suggesting the NSA used its surveillance powers to spy on Americans for political purposes, a fear of many critics who recall the FBI’s intrusive monitoring of civil rights leaders and anti-war protesters in the 1960s. Instead, the documents blame the years of government overreaching on technical mistakes, misunderstandings and lack of training.

From 2006 through early 2009, for instance, the NSA’s computers reached into the database of phone records and compared them with thousands of others without “reasonable, articulable suspicion,” the required legal standard.

By the time the problems were discovered, only about 10 percent of the 17,835 phone numbers on the government’s watch list in early 2009 met the legal standard.

By then, Walton said he’d “lost confidence” in the NSA’s ability to legally operate the program. He ordered a full review of the surveillance.

In its long report to the surveillance court in August 2009, the Obama administration blamed its mistakes on the complexity of the system and “a lack of shared understanding among the key stakeholders” about the scope of the surveillance.

“The documents released today are a testament to the government’s strong commitment to detecting, correcting and reporting mistakes that occur in implementing technologically complex intelligence collection activities, and to continually improving its oversight and compliance processes,” Clapper said in a statement Tuesday.

The surveillance court was satisfied by those improvements; it allowed the NSA to continue collecting phone records every day, a practice that continues today.

Now, the Obama administration is fending off lawsuits and a push in Congress to rein in the surveillance.

An unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and Republican civil libertarians has proposed several bills that would either scrap the phone surveillance entirely or require more oversight.

President Barack Obama has said he’s open to more oversight but says the surveillance is essential to keep the country safe.

Obama and Clapper have said the changes made in 2009 resulted in tightened controls. American data is still collected but only seldom looked at, officials said. And it is kept on secure computer servers equipped with special software to protect it from analysts looking to illegally snoop.

“There are checks at multiple levels,” NSA Deputy Director John Inglis told Congress in July. “There are checks in terms of what an individual might be doing at any moment in time.”

The same checks that protect Americans’ personal data were also supposed to protect the NSA’s information. Yet Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor, managed to walk out with flash drives full of the nation’s most highly classified documents.

The NSA is still trying to figure out, in such a complex system, exactly how Snowden defeated those checks.

“I think we can say that they failed,” Inglis said. “But we don’t yet know where.”


Associated Press writers Stephan Braun, Adam Goldman, Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan, Ted Bridis, Jim Drinkard and Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed to this report.


Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Defeated foes of NSA spying program vow to continue fight

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., comments about the vote on the defense spending bill and his failed amendment that would have cut funding to the National Security Agency's program that collects the phone records of U.S. citizens and residents, at the Capitol, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. The Amash Amendment narrowly lost, 217-205. The White House and congressional backers of the NSA's electronic surveillance program lobbied against ending the massive collection of phone records from millions of Americans saying it would put the nation at risk from another terrorist attack. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., comments about the vote on the defense spending bill and his failed amendment. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Opponents of the National Security Agency’s collection of hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records insist they will press ahead with their challenge to the massive surveillance program after a narrow defeat in the House.

Furious lobbying and last-minute pleas to lawmakers ensured victory for the Obama administration as the House voted 217-205 Wednesday to spare the NSA program. Unbowed, the libertarian-leaning conservatives, tea partyers and liberal Democrats who led the fight said they will try to undo a program they called an unconstitutional intrusion on civil liberties.

Rep. Justin Amash, a 33-year-old Michigan Republican, made his intentions clear through the social media of Twitter: “We came close (205-217). If just 7 Reps had switched their votes, we would have succeeded. Thank YOU for making a difference. We fight on.”

The other sponsor of the effort, 84-year-old Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said the vote’s slim margin ensures that vigorous debate on the NSA’s programs will continue.

“This discussion is going to be examined continually … as long as we have this many members in the House of Representatives that are saying it’s OK to collect all records you want just as long as you make sure you don’t let it go anywhere else,'” said Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “That is the beginning of the wrong direction in a democratic society.”

The showdown vote marked the first chance for lawmakers to take a stand on the secret surveillance program since former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents last month that spelled out the monumental scope of the government’s activities.

Backing the NSA program were 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who typically does not vote, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Rejecting the administration’s last-minute appeals to save the surveillance operation were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.

“I am particularly pleased that members on both sides of the aisle worked together to preserve critical intelligence tools that have proven successful in preventing terrorist attacks and keeping America safe,” Boehner said in a statement after the vote.

It is unlikely to be the final word on the worldwide debate over the U.S. government snooping to defend the nation versus the privacy of Americans.

“Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on Sept. 11?” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in pleading with his colleagues to back the program during House debate.

Amash defended his effort, saying the aim was to end the indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone records.

His measure, offered as an addition to a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for 2014, would have canceled the statutory authority for the NSA program, ending the agency’s ability to collect phone records and metadata under the USA Patriot Act unless it identified an individual under investigation.

The House later voted to pass the overall defense bill, 315-109.

Amash told the House that his effort was to defend the Constitution and “defend the privacy of every American.”

The unlikely political coalitions were on full display during a brief but spirited House debate.

“Let us not deal in false narratives. Let’s deal in facts that will keep Americans safe,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., an Intelligence Committee member who implored her colleagues to back a program that she argued was vital in combatting terrorism.

But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee who helped write the USA Patriot Act, insisted “the time has come” to stop the collection of phone records that goes far beyond what he envisioned.

Several Republicans acknowledged the difficulty in balancing civil liberties against national security, but they also expressed suspicion about the Obama administration’s implementation of the NSA programs — and anger at National Intelligence Director James Clapper.

Clapper has acknowledged he gave misleading statements to Congress on how much the U.S. spies on Americans. He apologized to lawmakers earlier this month after saying in March that the U.S. does not gather data on citizens — something that Snowden revealed as false by releasing documents showing the NSA collects millions of phone records.

“Right now the balancing is being done by people we do not know, people who lied to this body,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.

With a flurry of letters, statements and tweets, both sides lobbied intensely in the hours prior to the vote in the Republican-controlled House. In a statement, Clapper warned against dismantling a critical intelligence tool.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress has authorized — and a Republican and a Democratic president have signed — extensions of the powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.

Two years ago, in a strong bipartisan statement, the Senate voted 72-23 to renew the USA Patriot Act, and the House backed the extension 250-153.

Since the disclosures this year, however, lawmakers have said they were shocked by the scope of the two programs — one to collect records of hundreds of millions of calls and the other allowing the NSA to sweep up Internet usage data from around the world that goes through nine major U.S.-based providers.

Proponents argue that the surveillance operations have been successful in thwarting at least 50 terror plots across 20 countries, including 10 to 12 directed at the United States.

The overall defense spending bill would provide the Pentagon with $512.5 billion for weapons, personnel, aircraft and ships, plus $85.8 billion for the war in Afghanistan for the next budget year.

The total, which is $5.1 billion below current spending, has drawn a veto threat from the White House, which argues that it would force the administration to cut education, health research and other domestic programs in order to boost spending for the Pentagon.

The bill must be reconciled with whatever measure the Democratic-controlled Senate produces.

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Anger remains in Congress over government spying on Americans

The government is watching us but who is watching them?
The government is watching us but who is watching them?

Six weeks after a leaked document exposed the scope of the government’s surveillance of Americans’ phone records, many Democrats and some Republicans are still angry about it.

On Wednesday, key administration figures from the intelligence world will appear before the House Judiciary Committee to answer another round of questions.

The questioners include Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Republican who sponsored the USA Patriot Act, which governs the collection of phone records. Sensenbrenner has said he was “extremely troubled” by the administration’s legal interpretation that permitted the government to gather hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records.

Shortly after the surveillance was revealed, Rep. John Conyers, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said he feared “that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state.”

“Over the past decade — under the leadership of four chairman with diverse political views — the members of this committee have vigorously debated the proper balance between our safety and our constitutional right to privacy,” Conyers said in remarks prepared for Wednesday’s hearing. “We never — at any point during this debate — approved the type of unchecked, sweeping surveillance of United States citizens employed by our government in the name of fighting the war on terrorism.”

Those facing the committee will include Deputy Attorney General James Cole and National Security Agency deputy director John C. Inglis. The others testifying on behalf of the administration are Robert S. Litt, general counsel in the Office of Director of National Intelligence, and Stephanie Douglas, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch.

Members on both sides of the aisle are likely to look for clear answers on why, in the Obama administration’s view, the gathering of all phone records is lawful.

The committee also will hear from administration critics, among them Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union. Jaffer, the group’s deputy legal director, said in testimony prepared for Wednesday’s hearing that excessive secrecy on surveillance issues “has made congressional oversight difficult and public oversight impossible.”

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said in prepared testimony that the “massive” collection of information on Americans is unprecedented and that the surveillance of Americans “poses a significant and perhaps unprecedented challenge to our system of constitutional checks and balances.”


Associated Press writer David Espo contributed to this report.

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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The American government: It is, therefore it spies on everyone

To Uncle Sam, nothing is private.
To Uncle Sam, nothing is private.

For many Americans, probably most, it came as no shock that Uncle Sam spys on his citizens 24/7.

We’ve been writing about the constant surveillance for a long time here at Capitol Hill Blue.  Intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens became the order of the day under the despotic leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation by J. Edgar Hoover.

It got worse under Presidents like Richard Nixon when keeping an enemies list became standard operating procedure for those in power.

But spying became even more prominent after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and passage of the rights-robbing USA Patriot Act, the single largest assault on the Constitution ever foisted on America by Congress.

The Patriot Act came into being as new data collection procedures also became available.  In secrecy, the Pentagon put together the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a data-collection system that allowed the government real time access to the financial, communication and travel records of every American.

Congress tried more than once to shut down TIA, but the Pentagon — with the full backing and approval of the administration of George W. Bush — moved the program into its secret “black bag” program where it doesn’t have to answer to anyone, not even Congress or the Supreme Court.

Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the system hooked into banking, travel and communications systems to download information on every financial transaction, any use of phones or email or Social Networking and travel reservations, plane trips, rail excursions, hotel stays or similar information.

Suppose you decide to take a trip by car and start out the journey with the purchase of gas at your local gas station.  When you swipe the credit card at the pump, that purchase goes not only to the credit card company but also to the DARPA data computer operating in a normal looking building on Fairfax Drive in Arlington, Virginia.

That system now feeds into the National Security Agency, which has the power to open investigative files on any American it thinks is suspicious.

When you stop for gas again on your trip and use your credit card, the information goes to DARPA and the computer compares the first purchase to the new one and starts mapping the route of your travel.  Hotel stays, charges at restaurants and other info build a detailed profile of where you went and when.

If the route matches a so-called “suspicious” profile, the trip becomes a “file of interest” to the FBI.  Congratulations.  The trip to visit family in another state just labeled you a terrorism suspect.

How do we know about TIA?  For 23 years, my wife and I lived in a high-rise condo across the street from that innocuous building on Fairfax Drive.  We would see the employees of the so-called “secret” agency in local delis, wearing their name badges with “DARPA” on the strap.  After 9/11, the building was guarded night and day by Arlington County police cars sitting in front of the structure.

We got to know some of those who worked there.  Some of them talked.

It became the worst kept secret in the neighborhood and now the secrecy in DARPA, TIA, NSA and the invasion of American lives by the federal government is another secret that is out in the open.

Will anything be done?  Probably not.  As Americans, we now know that we are spied upon for sure but we also realize that we have little control over the government that controls our lives and there really isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.

Or is there?


Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

The Gestapo is alive and well in the American government

Sadly, this should be America's flag now
Sadly, this should be America’s flag now

It’s official:  America today is no better than Nazi Germany.  It’s no different than Soviet Russia was during the height of communism.  The so-called land of the free and home of the brave is now the nation of spied upon where the government collects private data on any an all Americans under the guise of fighting terrorism.

How did this happen?  With a despotic piece of legislation called the USA Patriot Act, a rights-robbing law passed in the aftermath of 9/11.  Most of the shell-shocked members of Congress voted for the Patriot Act without reading the law.  The few who did voted against it but those who actually knew what the law did to the freedoms of our nation were few and far between.

Created by a bible-thumping, over-reactionary Attorney General John Ashcroft, with the help of other questionable Republicans like James Sesenbrenner, the Patriot Act treated everybody as a “person of interest” and opened the floodgates for government intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with terrorism and imposed no threats to our nation.

The Patriot Act allowed U.S. citizens to be arrested and held without safeguards to our freedoms and even permitted them to be shipped overseas to nations that practiced torture in interrogation.

The law allowed President George W. Bush to free American agents to snoop into private lives without court orders, to obtain information on millions without safeguards to privacy and turned the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Homeland Security Agency into Gestapo-like organizations.

Barack Obama campaigned against the abuses of the Patriot Act but — once President — he actually increased the abuses of the law and, under his watch, the power of the National Security Agency and other government abusers of power and personal privacy.

The NSA now has data on every phone call made by customer of Verizon Wireless and other mobile phone carriers.  Member of Facebook?  Now everything you’ve posted is in the data banks of the NSA center in Maryland.

The government, under the abusive powers of another rights-robbing program called the Total Information Awareness system, looks at the financial and travel records of all Americans — not just foreign citizens suspected of terrorism.  Congress thought it killed the TIA but Bush just allowed it to be moved into the secretive area of Pentagon “black bag” operations.  They also changed the name but the abuses continue.

The invasion of privacy is not limited to Republicans or Democrats. The abuses started under Bush but expanded under Obama and now the administration in power is doing what it does best — lying through its teeth to try and justify widespread abuse of power and ignorance of freedoms that used to be sacred in America.

Welcome to Nazi America, land of the oppressed and home of the cowards.


Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Abuses of power and threats against freedom increased under Obama and GOP-controlled Congress

Constitutional abuses and threats against freedom for Americans have increased dramatically during Barack Obama’s Presidency and since Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, an investigation by Capitol Hill Blue reveals.

Warrantless wiretaps are on the rise and the Obama justice department not only continued the aggressive, freedom-robbing policies of the George W. Bush administration but is hiding increased abuses under a barrage of “executive orders” and uses of “executive privilege” to classify documents.

Obama and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder claim any disclosure of abuses of power and spying on Americans by the government “causes exception harm to national security.”

Ironically, Obama used the same procedures this week to bury the truth about the controversial and failed “Fast and Furious” Justice Department gun-running scheme to allow illegally-obtained firearms to move unrestricted between the U.S. and Mexico.  At least two of those firearms appeared at the scene of the murder of a U.S. customs agent.

Illegal detention of Americans, government prying into private lives and surveillance of of ordinary citizens is rising to “epidemic levels,” according to privacy experts and the abuses too often receive rubber stamp approval by the GOP-controlled Congress.

Republicans controlling the House Judiciary Committee this week voted down amendments to force increased accountability on government abuses and reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) through Dec. 31, 2017 without any changes or safeguards to protect the freedom of Americans.

Marc Rothenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said the actions of the committee to “collection of private communications of United States citizens” and limits accountability by the government.

“There is simply too little known about the operative of the FISA today to determine whether it is effective and whether the privacy interests of Americans are adequately protected,” Rothenberg said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns the “since 9/11, the privacy rights of Americans have come under a sustained assault that would have been hard to imagine in the languid days of August 2011.”

Notes the ACLU:

A constant stream of revolutionary new technologies erode existing protections, and greatly expanded powers for our security agencies allow the government to peer into our lives without due process or meaningful oversight. Our rights and liberties have undergone constant erosion since 9/11.

Ten years later, the websites we browse are tracked, our cell phones log our movements, our tweets are monitored by the FBI, our Internet communications being read and stored, and the NSA secretly wiretaps our calls. Things we once thought could only happen in far-away enemy states or distant dystopias are suddenly happening here in America. Sadly, it is no longer so hard to imagine a world straight out of the mind of Philip K. Dick, with personally-tailored advertisements that follow us online, or maybe even pre-crime predictors that turn us all into suspects when we haven’t done anything wrong.

Under the Obama administration, the use of “National Security Letters” by the FBI has increased.  These letters force banks, employers and other sources of information to turn over private data on U.S. citizens without the knowledge of Americans and without oversight.

Authorized by the rights-robbing USA Patriot Act, the NSLs allows the FBI to compile extensive dossiers on ordinary American citizens.

“These are essentially secret subpoenas that are issued directly by the FBI without any court invovlement,” notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The USA Patriot Act was rushed into law in the aftermath of 9/11 and most members of Congress later admitted they did not even read the act before voting for it.

Obama campaigned against the act in 2008 but become not only a proponent of the abuses of power allowed under the act but supported given the White House and government more authority once he became President.

Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has not come out against the act or its abuses.  Of the remaining Presidential candidates, only Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has consistently voted against the act and its abuses, supports repeal of the act and other rights-robbing actions of the federal government.

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