NSA, the Agency That Could Be
by James Bamford
New York Times, December 25, 2005
Washington - Deep in a remote, fog-layered
hollow near Sugar Grove, W.Va., hidden by fortress-like mountains,
sits the country's largest eavesdropping bug. Located in a "radio
quiet" zone, the station's large parabolic dishes secretly
and silently sweep in millions of private telephone calls and
e-mail messages an hour.
Run by the ultrasecret National Security
Agency, the listening post intercepts all international communications
entering the eastern United States. Another NSA listening post,
in Yakima,Wash., eavesdrops on the western half of the country.
A hundred miles or so north of Sugar
Grove, in Washington, the NSA has suddenly taken center stage
in a political firestorm. The controversy over whether the president
broke the law when he secretly ordered the NSA to bypass a special
court and conduct warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens
has even provoked some Democrats to call for his impeachment.
According to John E. McLaughlin, who
as the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the
fall of 2001 was among the first briefed on the program, this
eavesdropping was the most secret operation in the entire intelligence
network, complete with its own code word - which itself is secret.
Jokingly referred to as "No Such
Agency," the NSA was created in absolute secrecy in 1952
by President Harry S. Truman. Today, it is the largest intelligence
agency. It is also the most important, providing far more insight
on foreign countries than the CIA and other spy organizations.
But the agency is still struggling
to adjust to the war on terror, in which its job is not to monitor
states, but individuals or small cells hidden all over the world.
To accomplish this, the NSA has developed ever more sophisticated
technology that mines vast amounts of data. But this technology
may be of limited use abroad. And at home, it increases pressure
on the agency to bypass civil liberties and skirt formal legal
channels of criminal investigation. Originally created to spy
on foreign adversaries, the NSA was never supposed to be turned
inward. Thirty years ago, Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat
who was then chairman of the select committee on intelligence,
investigated the agency and came away stunned.
"That capability at any time
could be turned around on the American people," he said in
1975, "and no American would have any privacy left, such
is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations,
telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."
He added that if a dictator ever took
over, the NSA "could enable it to impose total tyranny, and
there would be no way to fight back."
At the time, the agency had the ability
to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote
in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters.
But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in
e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records
to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency
virtually has the ability to get inside a person's mind.
The NSA's original target had been
the Communist bloc. The agency wrapped the Soviet Union and its
satellite nations in an electronic cocoon. Anytime an aircraft,
ship or military unit moved, the NSA would know. And from 22,300
miles in orbit, satellites with super-thin, football-field-sized
antennas eavesdropped on Soviet communications and weapons signals.
Today, instead of eavesdropping on
an enormous country that was always chattering and never moved,
the NSA is trying to find small numbers of individuals who operate
in closed cells, seldom communicate electronically (and when they
do, use untraceable calling cards or disposable cellphones) and
are constantly traveling from country to country.
During the cold war, the agency could
depend on a constant flow of American-born Russian linguists from
the many universities around the country with Soviet studies programs.
Now the government is forced to search ethnic communities to find
people who can speak Dari, Urdu or Lingala - and also pass a security
clearance that frowns on people with relatives in their, or their
parents', former countries.
According to an interview last year
with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the NSA's director, intercepting
calls during the war on terrorism has become a much more complex
endeavor. On Sept. 10, 2001, for example, the NSA intercepted
two messages. The first warned, "The match begins tomorrow,"
and the second said, "Tomorrow is zero hour." But even
though they came from suspected al Qaeda locations in Afghanistan,
the messages were never translated until after the attack on Sept.
11, and not distributed until Sept. 12.
What made the intercepts particularly
difficult, General Hayden said, was that they were not "targeted"
but intercepted randomly from Afghan pay phones.
This makes identification of the caller
extremely difficult and slow. "Know how many international
calls are made out of Afghanistan on a given day? Thousands."
General Hayden said.
Still, the NSA doesn't have to go
to the courts to use its electronic monitoring to snare al Qaeda
members in Afghanistan. For the agency to snoop domestically on
American citizens suspected of having terrorist ties, it first
must to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or
FISA, make a showing of probable cause that the target is linked
to a terrorist group, and obtain a warrant.
The court rarely turns the government
down. Since it was established in 1978, the court has granted
about 19,000 warrants; it has only rejected five. And even in
those cases the government has the right to appeal to the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, which in 27 years has
only heard one case. And should the appeals court also reject
the warrant request, the government could then appeal immediately
to a closed session of the Supreme Court.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the NSA
normally eavesdropped on a small number of American citizens or
resident aliens, often a dozen or less, while the FBI, whose low-tech
wiretapping was far less intrusive, requested most of the warrants
Despite the low odds of having a request
turned down, President Bush established a secret program in which
the NSA would bypass the FISA court and begin eavesdropping without
warrant on Americans. This decision seems to have been based on
a new concept of monitoring by the agency, a way, according to
the administration, to effectively handle all the data and new
At the time, the buzzword in national
security circles was data mining: digging deep into piles of information
to come up with some pattern or clue to what might happen next.
Rather than monitoring a dozen or so people for months at a time,
as had been the practice, the decision was made to begin secretly
eavesdropping on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people for just
a few days or a week at a time in order to determine who posed
Those deemed innocent would quickly
be eliminated from the watch list, while those thought suspicious
would be submitted to the FISA court for a warrant.
In essence, NSA seemed to be on a
classic fishing expedition, precisely the type of abuse the FISA
court was put in place to stop.At a news conference, President
Bush himself seemed to acknowledge this new tactic. "FISA
is for long-term monitoring," he said. "There's a difference
between detecting so we can prevent, and monitoring."
This eavesdropping is not the Bush
administration's only attempt to expand the boundaries of what
is legally permissible.
In 2002, it was revealed that the
Pentagon had launched Total Information Awareness, a data mining
program led by John Poindexter, a retired rear admiral who had
served as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan and helped
devise the plan to sell arms to Iran and illegally divert the
proceeds to rebels in Nicaragua.
Total Information Awareness, known
as TIA, was intended to search through vast data bases, promising
to "increase the information coverage by an order-of-magnitude."
According to a 2002 article in The New York Times, the program
"would permit intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials
to mount a vast dragnet through electronic transaction data ranging
from credit card information to veterinary records, in the United
States and internationally, to hunt for terrorists." After
press reports, the Pentagon shut it down, and Mr. Poindexter eventually
left the government.
But according to a 2004 General Accounting
Office report, the Bush administration and the Pentagon continued
to rely heavily on data-mining techniques. "Our survey of
128 federal departments and agencies on their use of data mining,"
the report said, "shows that 52 agencies are using or are
planning to use data mining. These departments and agencies reported
199 data-mining efforts, of which 68 are planned and 131 are operational."
Of these uses, the report continued, "the Department of Defense
reported the largest number of efforts."
The administration says it needs this
technology to effectively combat terrorism. But the effect on
privacy has worried a number of politicians.
After he was briefed on President
Bush's secret operation in 2003, Senator Jay Rockefeller, the
Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,
sent a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney.
"As I reflected on the meeting
today and the future we face," he wrote, "John Poindexter's
TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding
the direction the administration is moving with regard to security,
technology, and surveillance."
Senator Rockefeller sounds a lot like
Senator Frank Church.
"I don't want to see this country
ever go across the bridge," Senator Church said. "I
know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America,
and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess
this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision,
so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from
which there is no return."
James Bamford is the author of
Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret
National Security Agency.
National Security Agency watch