Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Top NSA Scribe Takes Us Inside The Shadow Factory

It's always hectic when campaign season begins to wind down, and its no different here at CFC. I'm trying to multi-task at before unheard of levels!

While I have a second though, I thought I should follow up on the recent revelations coming out on the NSA's eavesdropping of American citizen phone calls. And no, I'm not talking about a phone call to a terrorist, I'm talking about phone calls about, well anything you can imagine, with government eavesdroppers not just listening in, but joking about what you're talking about.

Scary, unconstitutional stuff if you ask me. But let's ask someone far more knowledgeable than I shall we? How about James Bamford, the New York Times investigative journalist who broke the wiretapping story a few years ago.

Here he's interviwed in Wired Magazine:

No outsider has spent more time tracking the labyrinthine ways of the National Security Agency than James Bamford. But even he gets lost in the maze. Despite countless articles and three books on the U.S. government's super-secret, signals-intelligence service — the latest of which, The Shadow Factory, is out today — Bamford tells Danger Room that he was caught off guard by revelations that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans. He remains confused about how the country's telecommunications firms were co-opted into the warrantless spying project. And he's still only guessing, he admits, at the breadth and depth of those domestic surveillance efforts. In this exclusive interview, Bamford talks about how hard it is, after all these years, to fit together the pieces at the NSA's "Puzzle Palace" headquarters.


DR: NSA has long had all these relationships with the telecommunications companies, as well. One thing that confused me: Before 9/11, while Hayden was supposedly fighting against any eavesdropping on Americans, you write, the NSA was trying to convince one telecom, Qwest Communications, to help the agency conduct domestic surveillance. Those two don't fit.

JB: It would've been nice if everything fit into a nice little package, but it didn't. That was one of the outlying issues. The time line seemed to be off. You know, I could see [Hayden] doing that after 9/11, but before 9/11 he was very careful. It's hard to say. Again, I'm just one guy trying to write this book. But that's why there really needs to be a congressional investigation into what went on at NSA.

The only thing I can think of is that [Hayden] may not have been trying to get access to the actual voice conversations. What he may have been trying to get from Qwest was their database of subscribers — subscriber names, subscriber telephone numbers. It's one of the things that NSA has always tried to get. I mean, going back to the early days, they had the world's largest collection of telephone books. Hayden would've known that was at least questionable, if not illegal, because I think he made a comment about that very kind of access before 9/11.


DR: But, before, there was such a strong culture at NSA of respecting Americans' privacy. You had United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18 (USSID 18), which strictly prohibits listening in on U.S. persons, without a warrant. What happened?

JB: That's one of the interesting things, one of the things I wanted to get across in the book — this whole before-and-after issue. [Before,] as soon as they got an American, under USSID 18, they had to turn it off. And then after 9/11, all those USSID 18 rules and regulations they had before 9/11 were thrown out the window. They'd make up these flimsy excuses, like, "Well, suppose an American loses her cell phone and then what happens if a terrorist picks it up." They're bending 180 degrees backwards.

DR: Is that why you joined the ACLU's lawsuit against the agency?

JB: I was outraged the moment I heard what was going on. Of all the journalists out there, I'm the one person who's written more than anyone about NSA. I knew this, this is a big deal. I had written about the horror days of the '50s, '60s, up until the mid-'70s, when they were engaged in this warrantless eavesdropping. The impression I got [previously] was that they were always trying to push back, hard, from the edge. And I hadn't changed that impression, post-9/11.... For NSA to all of a sudden revert back to the bad old days of the '60s and '70s — I thought that was illegal, unethical. I was very angry. I thought NSA shouldn't be doing this.

So then, a couple of weeks later, the ACLU calls me up, and asks me to join a suit. I didn't immediately say, "Yes, hell yeah, I'll do it." I said I'd think about it. Because it was a big thing for me to, all of a sudden, step out of my role as a journalist and a writer and to become a plaintiff against the agency I had written two books about. If I had wanted to play it safe, I would've said, "we'll, ya know, I gotta be a journalist here," thinking I may lose all these sources, starting with Hayden and working my way down. They like me at NSA. [But] I thought they were doing something bad, and I had to do something about it.

There were a lot of people there that got very angry at me for suing the agency they worked for. People that were all in favor of what NSA was doing — which was a lot of people. Ya know, "patriotic, we should be doing this," all that stuff. And I was saying, "Well, I don't mind if you spy on terrorists. But we live in a democracy. There's got to be a buffer here between the people who are targeting the terrorists and the American public."

This is some GREAT stuff. Click here to read more.

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