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Surveillance Blowback

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Posted on Jul 16, 2013
Nebulon5 (CC BY 2.0)

By Alfred W. McCoy, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

After confining the populations of Baghdad and the rebellious Sunni city of Falluja behind blast-wall cordons, the U.S. Army attempted to bring the Iraqi resistance under control in part by collecting, as of 2011, three million Iraqi fingerprints,iris, and retinal scans.  These were deposited in a biometric database in West Virginia that American soldiers at checkpoints and elsewhere on distant battlefields could at any moment access by satellite link. Simultaneously, the Joint Special Operations Command under General Stanley McChrystal centralized all electronic and satellite surveillance in the Greater Middle East to identify possible al-Qaeda operatives for assassination by Predator drones or hunter-killer raids by Special Operations commandos from Somalia to Pakistan.

Domestically, post-9/11, the White House tried to create a modern version of the old state-citizen alliance for domestic surveillance. In May 2002, President Bush’s Justice Department launched Operation TIPS with “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others” spying on fellow citizens. But there was vocal opposition from members of Congress, civil libertarians, and the media, which soon forced Justice to quietly kill the program.

In a digital iteration of the same effort, retired admiral John Poindexter began to set up an ominously titled Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness to amass a “detailed electronic dossier on millions of Americans.” Again the nation recoiled, Congress banned the program, and the admiral was forced to resign.

Defeated in the public arena, the Bush administration retreated into the shadows, where it launched secret FBI and NSA domestic surveillance programs. Here, Congress proved far more amenable and pliable.  In 2002, Congress erased the bright line that had long barred the CIA from domestic spying, granting the agency the power to access U.S. financial records and audit electronic communications routed through the country.

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Defying the FISA law, in October 2001 President Bush ordered the NSA to commence covert monitoring of private communications through the nation’s telephone companies without the requisite warrants. According to the Associated Press, he also “secretly authorized the NSA to plug into the fiber optic cables that enter and leave the United States” carrying the world’s “emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions, and more.” Since his administration had already conveniently decided that “metadata was not constitutionally protected,” the NSA began an open-ended program, Operation Stellar Wind, “to collect bulk telephony and Internet metadata.”

By 2004, the Bush White House was so wedded to Internet metadata collection that top aides barged into Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room to extract a reauthorization signature for the program.  They were blocked by Justice Department officials led by Deputy Attorney General James Comey, forcing a two-month suspension until that FISA court, brought into existence in the Carter years, put its first rubber-stamp on this mass surveillance regime.

Armed with expansive FISA court orders allowing the collection of data sets rather than information from specific targets, the FBI’s “Investigative Data Warehouse” acquired more than a billion documents within five years, including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information.  All of this was accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. In 2006, as the flood of data surging through fiber optic cables strained NSA computers, the Bush administration launched the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to develop supercomputing searches powerful enough to process this torrent of Internet information.

In 2005, a New York Times investigative report exposed the administration’s illegal surveillance for the first time. A year later, USA Today reported that the NSA was “secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South.” One expert called it  “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” adding presciently that the Agency’s goal was “to create a database of every call ever made.”

In August 2007, in response to these revelations, Congress capitulated.  It passed a new law, the Protect America Act, which retrospectively legalized this illegal White House-inspired set of programs by requiring greater oversight by the FISA court.  This secret tribunal—acting almost as a “parallel Supreme Court” that rules on fundamental constitutional rights without adversarial proceedings or higher review—has removed any real restraint on the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Internet metadata and regularly rubberstamps almost 100% of the government’s thousands of surveillance requests. Armed with expanded powers, the National Security Agency promptly launched its PRISM program (recently revealed by Edward Snowden).  To feed its hungry search engines, the NSA has compelled nine Internet giants, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, and Skype, to transfer what became billions of emails to its massive data farms.


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