Wiretap Mystery: Spooks React

A few current and former signals intelligence guys have been checking in since this NSA domestic spying story broke. Their reactions range between midly creeped out and completely pissed off.wiretap3ddvdcase-eng.gifAll of the sigint specialists emphasized repeatedly that keeping tabs on Americans is way beyond the bounds of what they ordinarily do -- no matter what the conspiracy crowd may think."It's drilled into you from minute one that you should not ever, ever, ever, under any fucking circumstances turn this massive apparatus on an American citizen," one source says. "You do a lot of weird shit. But at least you don't fuck with your own people."Another, who's generally very pro-Administration, emphasized that the operation at least started with people that had Al-Qaeda connections -- with some mass-spying master list. As the Times, in its original story, noted:

The C.I.A. seized the terrorists' computers, cellphones and personal phone directories, said the officials familiar with the program. The N.S.A. surveillance was intended to exploit those numbers and addresses as quickly as possible, they said....In addition to eavesdropping on those numbers and reading e-mail messages to and from the Qaeda figures, the N.S.A. began monitoring others linked to them, creating an expanding chain. While most of the numbers and addresses were overseas, hundreds were in the United States, the officials said....Since 2002, the agency has been conducting some warrantless eavesdropping on people in the United States who are linked, even if indirectly, to suspected terrorists through the chain of phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
But this call chain could very well have grown out of control, the source admits. Suddenly, people ten and twelve degrees of separation away from Osama may have been targeted.Deputy Director for National Intelligence Michael Hayden hinted at what might be going on in a press conference yesterday:
And here the key is not so much persistence as it is agility. It's a quicker trigger. It's a subtly softer trigger. And the intrusion into privacy -- the intrusion into privacy is significantly less. It's only international calls. The period of time in which we do this is, in most cases, far less than that which would be gained by getting a court order.
That points to a diferent type of technology at work, as I suggested the other day. Senator Jay Rockefeller, in a remarkable pair of handwritten letters (one kept for safe keeping, in case someone tried to say later on that he approved of the program) seems to back this point of view.
As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, 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.
TIA, of course, would be "Total Information Awareness," Darpa's effort to find potential enemies of the state in the data trails of ordinary folks. The program was cancelled a few years back. But a whole bunch of similar efforts continue throughout the government.A former sigint type -- who also talked to Ryan, apparently -- suggests a different technological approach: the NSA "may have compromised a hardware manufacturer -- say Motorola or a satellite phone manufacturer, a telecom carrier or a satellite(s)."I'll keep my ears open.UPDATE 11:27 AM: There's a ton of surveillance-related news that has come out in the last day, including:
- FBI spied on PETA- Bush personally asked the Times to kill its NSA story- "Pentagon's Intelligence Authority Widens"- DoD: gay law school groups a "credible" terror threat
UPDATE 12:22 PM: Laura points us to an absolute must-read post from Bill Arkin today:
In the spring of 2001, NSA began to change direction in its counter-terrorism targeting under Lt. Gen. Hayden: rather than analyzing the mass of what was collected hoping for the gem in the growing mass of available material, NSA began a methodical process of dissecting terrorist target communications practices and network to determine what to collect. This is commonly referred to at NSA as hunting rather than gathering. It was a procedure that was in its infancy on 9/11.So what happened? The perceived shackles of domestic collection were removed, the gathering process began again to overwhelm the hunting process, new software, data-mining and link analysis methods were applied to isolate potential domestic targets.
UPDATE 2:07 PM: Check out Bruce Schneier for a quick history of domestic eavesdropping. Our old pal Hannibal from Ars Technica rounds out the review. And Garrance from around the block dives into the data mining laws.
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