In March 2004, the Justice Department under Ashcroft ruled that the Stellar Wind domestic intelligence program was illegal. The day after the ruling, Ashcroft became critically ill with acute pancreatitis. President Bush sent his White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. to Ashcroft’s hospital bed. They wanted him to sign a document reversing the Justice Department’s ruling. But the semi-conscious Ashcroft refused to sign; Acting Attorney General James Comey and Jack Goldsmith, head of the Office of Legal Counsel for DOJ, were there to back him up. Bush reauthorized the operation by executive decision, over formal Justice Department objections.
Also there was FBI Director Robert Mueller. None of them, neither Ashcroft nor Comey nor Goldsmith nor Mueller was any sort of hero. The program continues to this day, it’s merely been renamed.
8 Years Later, NSA Still Using Same PR Strategy to Hide Illegal Wiretap Program
Posted on November 21, 2013
Between these two posts (one, two), I’ve shown that the Executive Branch never stopped illegally wiretapping Americans, even after the worst part of it got “shut down” after the March 2004 hospital confrontation. Instead, they got FISC to approve collection with certain rules, then violated the rules consistently. When that scheme was exposed with the transition between the Bush and Obama Administrations, the Executive adopted two new strategies to hide the illegal wiretapping. First, simply not counting how many Americans they were illegally wiretapping, thus avoiding explicit violation of 50 USC 1809(a)(2). And, starting just as the Executive was confessing to its illegal wiretapping, moving – and expanding it – overseas. Given that they’re collecting content, that is a violation in spirit, at least, of Section 704 of FISA Amendments Act, which requires a warrant for wiretapping an American overseas (the government probably says this doesn’t apply because GCHQ does much of the wiretapping).
One big discovery the Snowden leaks have shown us, then, is that the government has never really stopped Bush’s illegal wiretapping program.
When WSJ reported that the NSA has access to 75% of the Internet traffic in the US, I Con released a misleading rebuttal. When, in the wake of a NYT report that NSA and GCHQ were using vastly expanded contact chaining (which we now know was initiated just as the illegal domestic program was being revealed) to produce dossiers on people, even inattentive members of Congress started asking about upstream collection and EO 12333 violations, top officials first distorted the questions then refused to answer them. When various outlets in Europe revealed how much spying NSA and GCHQ were doing on Europeans, the I Con unleashed their secret weapon, the “conjunction,” which succeeded in getting most National Security journalists to forget about GCHQ’s known, voracious collection.
Then there’s the response to WaPo’s report that NSA had returned to its old ways of stealing data from Google and Yahoo. At first, I thought they were just engaging in their typical old non-denial denials. They were doing that, sure, but as Bart Gellman revealed during his debate with Michael Hayden (just after 44:00), they also tried to undermine WaPo’s report by refusing to engage at all.
In response to this treatment, the WaPo did a remarkable fisking of Administration pushback claims and – in the process – released more sensitive documents to prove they were right. Ha!
Almost 8 years ago, when NYT revealed the illegal wiretap program, the Bush Administration largely succeeded in hiding the biggest legal problems with the program by focusing attention on just a small fraction of the program, which they dubbed the “TSP,” while hiding the rest. Remarkably, the I Con is still using precisely the same strategy to hide what remains structurally the same illegal wiretap program that has, however, ballooned in size.