In a rare break from the NSA’s tradition of listening but not speaking, NSA chief General Keith Alexander was grilled Tuesday on the topic of eavesdropping on Americans in front of a House subcommittee.
The questioning from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) was prompted by Wired’s cover story this month on the NSA’s growing reach and capabilities, but leaves Americans with as many questions about the reach of spy agency’s powers as they had before Alexander spoke.
Alexander denied, in carefully parsed words, that the NSA has the power to monitor Americans’ communications without getting a court warrant.
But Alexander’s comments fly in the face of people who actually helped create the agency’s eavesdropping and data mining infrastructure. Few people know that system as well as William Binney, who served as the technical director for the agency’s M Group, which stood for World Geopolitical Military Analysis and Reporting, the giant 6,000-person organization responsible for eavesdropping on most of the world.
He was also the founder and co-director of the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center, which helped automate that eavesdropping network. Binney decided to leave after a long career rather than be involved in the agency warrantless eavesdropping program, a program he said involves secret monitoring facilities in ten to twenty large telecom switches around the country, such as the one discovered in San Francisco’s AT&T installation a few years ago.
Historically, the NSA’s initial response has always been to either deny or evade when confronted with issues involving eavesdropping on Americans. For decades the agency secretly hid from Congress the fact that it was copying, without a warrant, virtually every telegram traveling through the United States, a program known as Project Shamrock. Then it hid from Congress the fact that it was illegally targeting the phone calls of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War, known as Project Minaret.
More recently, President Bush said falsely that no American had been wiretapped without a warrant at the same time the agency was eavesdropping on thousands of Americans without a warrant as part of the later revealed Operation Stellar Wind. The Congress then passed a bill granting immunity from prosecution and law suits to the telecom companies involved in the illegal program.
Also, in the same way that General Alexander carefully parsed his words, the agency has always maintained its own secret definition of words in a document known as United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, a document classified above top secret.
For example, NSA can intercept millions of domestic communications and store them in a data center like Bluffdale and still be able to say it has not “intercepted” any domestic communications. This is because of its definition of the word. “Intercept,” in NSA’s lexicon, only takes place when the communications are “processed” “into an intelligible form intended for human inspection,” not as they pass through NSA listening posts and transferred to data warehouses.
Complicating matters is the senseless scenario made up for the questioning by Congress, which makes it difficult to make sense of his answers, especially since many seem very parsed, qualified, and surrounded in garbled syntax.
That scenario involved NSA targeting U.S. citizens for making fun of a President Dick Cheney for shooting a fellow hunter in the face with a shotgun, and then the fun-makers being waterboarded for their impertinence. Asked whether the NSA has the capability of monitoring the communications of Americans, he never denies it –
he simply says, time and again, that NSA can’t do it “in the United States.” In other words it can monitor those communications from satellites in space, undersea cables, or from one of its partner countries, such as Canada or Britain, all of which it has done in the past.
In my article I quote from a former NSA intercept operator, Adrienne Kinne, who was posted at the NSA’s giant listening post in Georgia and who eavesdropped on many communications between Americans overseas and in the U.S., including personal calls between journalists and their families. But while she was in Georgia, satellites deep in space did the actual interception.
“Basically all rules were thrown out the window and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans,” she said. She added, “A lot of time you could tell they were calling their families, waking them up in the middle of the night because of the time difference. And so they would be talking all quiet and soft and their family member is like half asleep and incredibly intimate, personal conversations.” Kinne protested both within NSA and then in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, but neither took any action.
Her allegations were confirmed by a second source I interviewed several years ago. David Murfee Faulk was also an intercept operator at NSA Georgia, but at a later date than Kinne, whom he never met. While there, a colleague told him about being instructed to begin warrantless targeting of Americans overseas calling the U.S. “The calls were all in English, they were all American, and the guy goes back to his supervisor, a warrant officer, and says, ‘Sir, these people are all Americans,’” according to Faulk. “He said, ‘No, just transcribe it, that’s an order, transcribe everything.’ . . .
A lot of these people were having personal phone calls, calling their families back home, having all kinds of personal discussions, and everything just disappeared somewhere, someone’s got it.”
Like Kinne, Faulk’s fellow intercept operator also complained. “After a few days he said he didn’t want to do it anymore, didn’t think it was right. And in a situation like that the officer just gets someone else to do it. So they got somebody else to do it. There is always somebody else who will do something like that. The whole agency down here, at least the way it operates in Georgia, there’s a lot of intimidation, everybody’s afraid of getting in trouble, and people just follow orders.” Like Kinne, Faulk also told his story privately to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The agency can also do the actual domestic eavesdropping from foreign countries, such as Canada, or from its greatly expanding listening post in Central England, and then just retransmit the data to the U.S. A former NSA deputy director, Louis Tordella, once referred to this technique when testifying before Congress. He noted that the NSA had asked the CIA to conduct illegal domestic eavesdropping but was turned down because the monitoring would take place “on U.S. soil.”
He added, “I was told that if they could move a group of Cubans up to Canada it would be quite all right, but they would not do it in the United States.” And the U.S. frequently asks its very close foreign partners, Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, to conduct eavesdropping on its behalf and vice versa. The countries call themselves, the “Five Eyes.” Prior to 9/11, says Kinne, these countries were not supposed to monitor citizens in each other’s countries, but that also changed. “We listened to Australians, Canadians, Brits. And so it wasn’t just the Americans but that whole idea that you weren’t supposed to monitor those five countries either – citizens of those five countries.” With the borderlessness of modern digital communications, where the actual eavesdropping is done becomes almost irrelevant.
For years, public interest groups such as the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have been trying through court suits to find out the extend of NSA’s eavesdropping on Americans, only to be rebuffed at every turn with claims of secrecy, while whistleblowers such as Adrienne Kinne, David Murfee Faulk, and William Binney have risked going to prison in order to expose NSA’s actions.
Now that General Alexander has broached the subject in an open session of Congress, it is time for the American people to know the real truth about their communications, not heavily parsed, qualified denials about an unlikely hypothetical. Let Congress call an open panel where whistleblowers such as Kinne, Faulk, and Binney give sworn testimony, and NSA, at last, responds fully concerning its domestic involvement.