Tag Archive: The National Security Agency

Aug 25 2012

Blowing in the Stellar Wind

Stellar Wind  is the open secret code name for certain information collection activities performed by the United States’ National Security Agency and revealed by Thomas M. Tamm to New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. The operation was approved by President George W. Bush shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The program’s activities involve data mining of a large database of the communications of American citizens, including e-mail communications, phone conversations, financial transactions, and Internet activity.

There were internal disputes within the Justice Department about the legality of the program, because data is collected for large numbers of people, not just the subjects of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants. In March 2004, the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that the program was illegal. The day after the ruling, Ashcroft became critically ill with acute pancreatitis. President Bush sent White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. to Ashcroft’s hospital bed, where Ashcroft lay semiconscious, to request that he sign a document reversing the Justice Department’s ruling. However, Ashcroft was incapable of signing the document. Bush then reauthorized the operation, over formal Justice Department objections. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller, Acting Attorney General James Comey, and many prominent members of the Justice Department were prepared to resign over the matter. Valerie Caproni the FBI general counsel, said, “From my perspective, there was a very real likelihood of a collapse of government.” Bush subsequently reversed the authorization.

During the Bush Administration, the Stellar Wind cases were referred to by FBI agents as “pizza cases” because many seemingly suspicious cases turned out to be food takeout orders. Approximately 99 percent of the cases led nowhere, but 1 percent bore fruit. One of the known uses of this data was the creation of suspicious activity reports, or “SARS”, about people suspected of terrorist activities. It was one of these reports that revealed former NY governor Elliot Spitzer‘s use of prostitutes, even though he was not suspected of terrorist activities.

In March 2012 Wired Magazine published “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” talking about a new NSA facility and says “For the first time, a former NSA official has gone on the record to describe the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, in detail.” Naming the official William Binney a former NSA code breaker. Binney goes on to say that the NSA has highly secured rooms that tap into major switches, and satellite communications at AT&T and Verizon both. [4] The article suggests that the otherwise dispatched Stellar Wind is actually an active program.

The Program

by Laura Poitras

To those who understand state surveillance as an abstraction, I will try to describe a little about how it has affected me. The United States apparently placed me on a “watch-list” in 2006 after I completed a film about the Iraq war. I have been detained at the border more than 40 times. Once, in 2011, when I was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and asserted my First Amendment right not to answer questions about my work, the border agent replied, “If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find our answers on your electronics.”‘ As a filmmaker and journalist entrusted to protect the people who share information with me, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to work in the United States. Although I take every effort to secure my material, I know the N.S.A. has technical abilities that are nearly impossible to defend against if you are targeted.

The 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which oversees the N.S.A. activities, are up for renewal in December. Two members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats, are trying to revise the amendments to insure greater privacy protections. They have been warning about “secret interpretations” of laws and backdoor “loopholes” that allow the government to collect our private communications. Thirteen senators have signed a letter expressing concern about a “loophole” in the law that permits the collection of United States data. The A.C.L.U. and other groups have also challenged the constitutionality of the law, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments in that case on Oct. 29.

Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker who has been nominated for an Academy Award and whose work was exhibited in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. She is working on a trilogy of films about post-9/11 America. This Op-Doc is adapted from a work in progress to be released in 2013.

This video is part of a series by independent filmmakers who have received grants from the BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute.

Who is watching the NSA?

Giving In to the Surveillance

by Shane Harris

IN March 2002, John M. Poindexter, a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, sat down with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the National Security Agency. Mr. Poindexter sketched out a new Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness, that proposed to scan the world’s electronic information – including phone calls, e-mails and financial and travel records – looking for transactions associated with terrorist plots. The N.S.A., the government’s chief eavesdropper, routinely collected and analyzed such signals, so Mr. Poindexter thought the agency was an obvious place to test his ideas.

He never had much of a chance. When T.I.A.’s existence became public, it was denounced as the height of post-9/11 excess and ridiculed for its creepy name. Mr. Poindexter’s notorious role in the Iran-contra affair became a central focus of the debate. He resigned from government, and T.I.A. was dismantled in 2003.

But what Mr. Poindexter didn’t know was that the N.S.A. was already pursuing its own version of the program, and on a scale that he had only imagined. A decade later, the legacy of T.I.A. is quietly thriving at the N.S.A. It is more pervasive than most people think, and it operates with little accountability or restraint. [..]

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) asked the NSA a simple question: how many persons inside the United States have been spied upon by the NSA? I. Charles McCullough, the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, answer was that to answer that question would violate the privacy of citizens. In other words, they probably don’t know.

In July, in response to a request from Sen. Wyden, IG McCullough declassified three statements “one of which indicated that the FISA court agreed with Wyden that the government had “circumvented the spirit of the law.” Even the Wall Street Journal reported that this “represented the first time the government has acknowledged U.S. spy activities violated the Constitution since the passage of” the Amendments Act in 2008.

Whistleblowers like Mr. Binney, Thomas Drake, as well as, journalists like Ms. Poitras and James Risen put their reputations, freedom and lives on the line to warn us about the unregulated, unmonitored surveillance of the NSA. No one is watching the NSA but they are watching us.

Aug 15 2012

Trapwire: Worse Than 1984

The recent release of e-mails from STRATFOR, a right wing global intelligence company, and documents about the surveillance system Trapwire by Wikileaks, has become the talk of the web and Twitter. David Seaman, an up and coming new media advocate and host of The DL Show, explains everything you need to know about Trapwire:

Anyway, here’s what Trapwire is, according to Russian-state owned media network RT (apologies for citing “foreign media”… if we had a free press, I’d be citing something published here by an American media conglomerate): “Former senior intelligence officials have created a detailed surveillance system more accurate than modern facial recognition technology-and have installed it across the U.S. under the radar of most Americans, according to emails hacked by Anonymous.

Every few seconds, data picked up at surveillance points in major cities and landmarks across the United States are recorded digitally on the spot, then encrypted and instantaneously delivered to a fortified central database center at an undisclosed location to be aggregated with other intelligence. It’s part of a program called TrapWire and it’s the brainchild of the Abraxas, a Northern Virginia company staffed with elite from America’s intelligence community. [..]

So: those spooky new “circular” dark globe cameras installed in your neighborhood park, town, or city-they aren’t just passively monitoring. They’re plugged into Trapwire and they are potentially monitoring every single person via facial recognition. [..]

In related news, the Obama administration is fighting in federal court this week for the ability to imprison American citizens under NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions-and anyone else-without charge or trial, on suspicion alone.

So we have a widespread network of surveillance cameras across America monitoring us and reporting suspicious activity back to a centralized analysis center, mixed in with the ability to imprison people via military force on the basis of suspicious activity alone.

The Young Turks’ host Cenk Uygur breaks down what Trapwire is and why it is a danger to individual freedom.

Noah Shachtman at The Danger Room takes an in depth look at the “sleazy” connection of STRATFOR to Trapwire and the CIA:

On Nov. 4, 2009, Fred Burton, the vice president of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, co-wrote an essay on emerging terrorist threats and the means to stop them. Particularly impressive, Burton wrote, was a new software tool called Trapwire, which works “with camera systems to help detect patterns of preoperational surveillance … to help cut through the fog of noise and activity and draw attention to potential threats.” [..]

What his customers reading that November 2009 essay may not have realized was that Burton was also marketing them a product. On Aug. 17 of that year, Stratfor and Trapwire signed a contract (.pdf) giving Burton’s company an 8 percent referral fee for any business they send Trapwire’s way. The essay was partially a sales pitch – a fact that Burton neglected to mention. [..]

That’s a breach of trust and possibly worse, says Matthew Aid, author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror. “It’s a conflict of interest.” [..]

Stratfor’s now-famous business partner, Trapwire Inc., began as a division of Abraxas Corporation, one of the more prominent intelligence contractors to crop up after the 9/11 attacks. Begun by Richard “Hollis” Helms, the former head of the CIA’s European division, the company grew so quickly that by 2005, Helms boasted it was “the largest aggregate of analytical counter-terrorism capabilities outside of the U.S. government.” The CIA began entrusting Abraxas with one of its most sensitive tasks: constructing false identities, front companies, and cover stories for agents traveling overseas. At one point, so many CIA employees were jumping ship for Abraxas that the director of the CIA asked it, and a handful of other firms, to stop recruiting in the agency cafeteria.

Today, contractors make up about one-third of the 845,000 people with top-secret security clearances in this country, the Washington Post estimates. It’s safe to assume that at least the same portion of the $80 billion annual intelligence budget goes to these outside firms. The Post counted 1,931 private companies in nearly 10,000 locations across America working on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence efforts.

TrapWire is already used in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Texas, DC, London, and other locales around the USA. Although a spokesperson from NYPD denies that they are using Trapwire, there are other companies that are doing the same surveillance that are just as sinister. Remember that NYPD has labeled people “professional agitators” for filming their activities but now they have a tool that can be used to shut down peaceful demonstration and association. It could be easily used to violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens wherever this type of surveillance is used.

Jul 03 2012

The Surveillance State of America

NSA EagleIn 2005 while George W. Bush still sat in the Oval Office, James Bamford penned this article for the New York Times Week in Review titled The Agency That Could Be Big Brother. Mr. Bamford, the author of “Puzzle Palace” and “Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency“, wrote about the National Security Agency which was created in absolute secrecy in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. This agency is now the largest of the security agencies surpassing the CIA and other spy organizations. And it is still growing. The agency now has sites all over the US and around the globe and we have no idea what their budget is or for that matter what they are doing with all that information. In 2005, controversy over whether the Pres. Bush broke the law when he secretly ordered the N.S.A. to bypass a special court (FISA) and conduct warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens had provoked some Democrats to call for his impeachment. Now today, Pres. Barack Obama, a Democrat, expands the NSA’a power and there is not silence, but support from the Democrats. We don’t even know how much is spent by the NSA since their budget is classified. Heh, Congress doesn’t know either. But I digress.

Columnist David Sirota wrote in the Seattle Times that the NSA now claims that “it can’t tell Congress about its activities violating the privacy of Americans because doing so might violate Americans’ privacy”.

In a letter to senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., the agency wrote: “(A) review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.” [..]

So why would the NSA nonetheless refuse to provide one? Most likely because such an estimate would be a number so big as to become a political problem for the national-security establishment.

According to the nonpartisan Electronic Frontier Foundation, “The U.S. government, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.”

That’s right, millions – and that’s merely what happened with one of many programs over the last decade.

Moving forward, Wired notes that the NSA is building the “Utah Data Center” – “a project of immense secrecy” designed “to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.”

Appearing at the Socialism 2012 conference in Chicago, Salon.com contributing editor and civil rights lawyer, Glenn Greenwald gave a speech on Challenging the Surveillance State. Glen suggests that if you can’t watch all four videos the last one about the harms from ubiquitous surveillance is the most important one. He also points out FDL’s Kevin Gosztola’s excellent commentary and summation of the speech.