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Black Ops: Building spy net to snare the Fourth Amendment

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DATA DOWNLOAD: Cyber snooping has reached new levels during the Obama administration.

DATA DOWNLOAD: Cyber snooping has reached new levels during the Obama administration.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON — In late 2007 and 2008, after Congress provided new legal powers — including an immunity law supported by Barack Obama — the National Security Agency obtained the cooperation of Microsoft and Yahoo in providing access to their servers, according to the Washington Post.

Since the beginning of 2009, the so-called PRISM program expanded to include Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype and others — so that Obama is now presiding over a data-collection and data-mining project that critics call the fulfillment of a “Total Information Awareness” program.

But the genesis of this “black ops” program goes back much further. Here’s a chronology gathered from Watchdog.org reports and other media outlets:


February: Shortly after the Bush administration took office, Dick Cheney personally sought the participation of Qwest Communications in an NSA program under which the company was asked to hand over its customers’ private phone records. Quest refused to do so, after finding out that the NSA had no warrant from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court or other legal authority to obtain such records.

Although the Bush administration claimed that it only launched its so-called “Terrorist Surveillance Program” after the 9/11 attacks, this shows that the 9/11 attacks were only a pretext for a program of police state surveillance that start months before.

October: Less than four weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, on Oct. 4, President Bush signed an order launching the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program, which went operational on Oct. 6. Quickly, the NSA made new approaches to the major telecommunications companies seeking access to all their traffic. These reportedly included the three largest: AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.


A secret presidential order authorized the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance.

In a parallel development, the Defense Department (DARPA) created the Information Awareness Office, also known as the Total (or Terrorist) Information Awareness Office, a data-mining program run by former Admiral John Poindexter.

In the summer of 2002, AT&T technician Mark Klein learned of secret rooms being constructed at two AT&T switching facilities in San Francisco, from which the NSA tapped into fiber-optic cables connecting its AT&T’s WorldNet service to other Internet providers. Klein thought the arrangement was part of the Total Information Awareness (TIA). Only persons with an NSA security clearance were allowed to enter the secret room. Similar NSA secret rooms were built in other AT&T facilities around the country.


After a public uproar, Congress pretended to shut down the TIA data-mining program set up by Iran-Contra figure Poindexter. The idea of TIA was to create a huge, centralized database consisting of government and commercial records, including bank records, credit card and telephone bills, travel records, and so on, and then to look for “suspicious” associations and patterns.

According to various accounts, it continues to do so up to the present. The unprecedented amounts of data which the NSA collects today, sweeping up all telephone and Internet traffic, Is useless unless the agency has the means to mine through it and analyze it — and that’s what Poindexter’s TIA and its offshoots were designed to do.

Media reports say the program was shifted into the Pentagon’s classified “black ops” budget, and continued to operate within the NSA, under the auspices of defense contractors such as Virginia-based SAIC.

On July 17, 2003, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was so alarmed by a secret White House briefing on the NSA program, that he sent a private letter to Cheney, expressing his concerns over the surveillance program, and saying it reminded him of Poindexter’s TIA program. Neither Cheney nor anyone else ever answered Rockefeller’s letter.


By March, Justice Department lawyers were becoming so concerned about the legality of the NSA surveillance program that they were considering refusing to re-certify it. The new Deputy Attorney General, James Comey, told Attorney General John Ashcroft that the program might be illegal. The Justice Department’s balking over recertification led to the dramatic confrontation in Ashcroft’s hospital room on March 10 where White House lawyers, acting at the direction of Cheney, attempted to get an ill and sedated Ashcroft to reauthorize the program, but were blocked by Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

When the White House reauthorized the program the next day, without DOJ approval, Comey, Ashcroft and all the top DOJ leadership threatened to resign unless the program was changed. Bush agreed to some modifications.


In a series of articles in December 2005, the New York Times exposed the Bush administration’s surveillance and eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without a court order. The warrantless surveillance program, operating since 2002, represented a sharp break with the previous practice of obtaining

FISA Court warrants for any domestic spying. The Times reported how the NSA has obtained access to the communications streams of the major telecommunications companies.


As the uproar over the warrantless wiretap program continued, the Washington Post reported that the NSA was sharing this information with the FBI, CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and other military agencies. USA Today named the private telecommunication companies involved.

SPEAKING OUT: Russell Tice was one of the early whistleblowers.

HOUSE TESTIMONY: Longtime NSA employee Russell Tice revealed “special access” programs.

In February, a longtime NSA employee, Russell Tice, told a House Government Reform subcommittee that he was concerned about the legality and constitutionality of another “special access” program being conducted by the NSA. Tice said this program was different and more far-reaching that the one disclosed by the New York Times, but he said he could not discuss it because of its highly-classified nature.


In January, the Bush administration announced that, henceforth, the FISA Court would authorize any surveillance previously conducted under the president’s Terrorist Surveillance Program. If this were true, it constituted a narrowing of the program.

In August, Congress passed the “Protect American Act,” which expanded executive power to conduct international surveillance, and allowed the FISA Court, for the first time, to issue blanket authorizations rather than individualized warrants —a move that the ACLU and other civil libertarian groups say violates the Fourth Amendment.

In September, the Bush administration obtained access to Microsoft’s Internet traffic, under the newly launched PRISM program.

According to BusinessInsider.com, Verizon set up a dedicated fiber-optic line running from New Jersey to Quantico, Va., home to a large military base and an FBI training center, allowing officials to gain access to all communications flowing through Verizon’s operations center.


In July, then-Sen. Obama reversed his previous stance, and votes for the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which gave retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies which had handed over customer records and data to the NSA.


At the beginning of January, federal courts started dismissing civil suits that had been brought against telecommunications companies, citing their immunity under the 2008 law.

In April 2009, the Obama administration moved to have another civil suit thrown out of court, on the grounds that any litigation over the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program would require the government to disclose “state secrets.”

The Obama administration invoked “state secrets” in other subsequent cases to defend the NSA surveillance program, and fought for broad immunity for telecommunications providers.


In April, the New York Times reports that the NSA was still engaged in intercepting purely domestic communications, beyond the limits set by Congress.

That same month, NSA whistleblower William Binney said that the NSA’s data-mining program has become so vast that the government has assembled 20 trillion transactions of U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens, including phone calls, emails, credit card purchases, and Internet searches.


On June 5-6, the Guardian newspaper of London reveals a secret FISA Court order requiring Verizon to turn over all customer records to the NSA on a daily basis.

“The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual,” the Guardian reported, and also cited the “numerous cryptic public warnings” by Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, that the Obama administration was relying on “secret legal interpretations” of its spying powers, so broad that the American public would be “stunned” to learn the scope of it.

On June 6-7, the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed the existence of the PRISM program involving the major Internet firms and providers.

On June 7, President Obama acknowledged the reported activities and fully defended them, in terms almost identical to those used by George W. Bush after the disclosure of the NSA spying program in 2005.

WHISTLEBLOWER: Edward Snowden exposed NSA activities to the British press. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

WHISTLEBLOWER: Edward Snowden exposed NSA activities to the British press. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Edward Snowden‘s whistleblowing on the NSA’s domestic spying activities revealed that it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in computer engineering or a rogue federal employee to steal supposedly super-secure government data and post it all over the Internet.

Watchdog.org’s Eric Boehm noted this week that Snowden, a 29 year-old with a GED who worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, had “top-secret” security clearance that allowed him to access the secure data right from the source.

According to a 2012 report, more than 4 million people have security clearances at some level, while 1.4 million – including 483,000 government contractors like Snowden – have “top secret” security clearance.

“To put it in perspective, 4 million is larger than the entire population of Puerto Rico, and the 483,000 contractors with ‘top secret’ clearance would exceed the population of Atlanta,” Boehm reported.



Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.