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SHAMROCK 2.0?

July 16, 2012

When I was an NSA officer my co-workers and I always found it amusing to laugh at the high-silliness Hollywood portrayals of No Such Agency (as we used to call it), monitoring average Americans in the minutiae of their daily lives. Enemy of the State may have been a serviceable action flick but it was a deeply misleading portrayal of what NSA actually does.

After 9/11 NSA got mired in the so-called wiretapping scandal, something which the left got quite hot and bothered about during George W. Bush’s second term; yet as with drones, we’ve heard minimal civil liberties yelping from the MSNBC crowd now that their guy is in charge.

I have to confess the post-9/11 kerfuffle never moved me much, since I knew what was actually going on, and that it bore scant resemblance to what the media portrayed as gross civil liberties violations. Moreover, it all looks different when you’re on active service, charged with protecting the nation and its citizens from terrorists bent on mayhem and murder. You don’t have the luxury of pontificating quite the same way you do as when you’re blogging with bunny slippers on.

That said, huge changes in telecommunications in the last decade-plus have thrown up a very different intelligence playing field. Simply put, everything is out there in the online world, in the ‘trons somewhere, just waiting to be picked up and exploited. And you don’t have to be a hardcore civil libertarian, as I am not, to be a tad concerned about the implications of all this. In the borderless online world, what exactly are the boundaries? It was all a lot clearer back in 1993 when U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, USSID 18 to the cognoscenti, was promulgated. But that was a long, long time ago in telecom. Now it’s … murky.

In recent years several NSA whistlebowers have come forward to explain how Big Brother really is listening in on you, reading your emails, snooping on your chats, et al. Most of those speaking out are individuals with agendas and sometimes failed careers behind them.

But Bill Binney was different. One of the finest Agency crypto-mathematicians of his generation – these being the scarily brilliant geeks who develop the code-cracking algorithims that allow NSA to protect you, dear citizen, while you sleep – Bill resigned in 2001 in disgust over what he believed to be the Agency’s misuse of his pet project, THINTHREAD, to spy domestically.

Bill has kept chugging along, explaining repeatedly that domestic espionage is out of control, and now he’s stated that NSA is collecting information on practically every American. Mincing words, not so much:

 “They’re pulling together all the data about virtually every U.S. citizen in the country … and assembling that information,” Binney explained. “So government is accumulating that kind of information about every individual person and it’s a very dangerous process.” He estimated that something like 1.6 billion logs have been processed since 2001.

I simply don’t know if this is true. And if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it openly on a blog anyway. But I will say is that this statement, if accurate, runs deeply contrary to the training about privacy protection which I had rammed into me received as a larval intelligence analyst some years ago. Moreover, Bill Binney is not a crank, a weirdo, or a charlatan. He is a very gifted man and a patriot who believes NSA, presumably on orders from “the top,” is misusing its enormous technological prowess. Certainly some public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age – something which of course NSA and the Intelligence Community but also very much the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided at every turn – seems overdue.

NSA’s historical record in this arena can be considered less than stellar. During World War Two the U.S. signals intelligence service, NSA’s forerunner, began collecting drop-copies of every telex – you can explain to the kids and grandkids what those were – going in and out of the United States. This huge undertaking, which sucked up on average 150,000 messages per month, continued for 30 years as Operation SHAMROCK until it was shut down by the NSA director just before Congress got overly interested. Worse, beginning in 1967 – yes, under LBJ, not Tricky Dick – NSA started Operation MINARET, the listening in on several thousand domestic individuals and groups considered hostile or subversive.

This Congress did get pretty worked up about during the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s, which led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, as well as the construction of “the wall” between law enforcement and intelligence which worked quite well at protecting civil liberties but was rather less effective at thwarting terrorists bent on their “big wedding” …. as we found out on 9/11.

More than a few NSAers were unhappy with the misuse of their Agency during the Johnson and especially Nixon years. One of them was my father, a career NSA officer (full disclosure: both my parents were career NSAers – it was an interesting childhood; I was “born with clearances” in insider jargon) who felt that his Agency had exceeded its mandate and was acting unconstitutionally. He voiced his concerns “up the chain” as they say. Back in the early 1970s the Agency still lived by the mantra of Never Say Anything so going to the media was unthinkable. Even limiting one’s protest to internal channels was not, shall we say, a career-enhancing move for a few years, until Congress changed everything, but it was a principled stand. A few years later, NSA would get very concerned about protecting the country from foreign threats in a manner consistent with the Constitution and our values: a balance which can be difficult to achieve consistently in the real world.

That terrible day in late summer 2001 rightly changed a lot about how U.S. intelligence fights terrorism. The infamous “wall” got lowered and even moved around a bit. If what Bill Binney says is true it has been lowered considerably more and may have been chopped down altogether, and that is something we should all be discussing.

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