Monday, May 08, 2006

Spying: Hayden, Risen, O'Harrow & Russert

On February 26 on CNBC's Tim Russert Show, Russert interviewed James Risen and Robert O'Harrow, Jr. about an enormous spying program that will knock your socks off.

Apparently The Russert Show doesn't have a website, and the show was never transcribed. Till now (you can thank me later)

BradBlog is hosting the video (24 mins). Here's how David Edwards describes the interview at BradBlog:
James Risen broke the NSA warrantless domestic spying story for the New York Times. He also has a new book out, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA And The Bush Administration. Risen is known to have sources within various intelligence agencies and has recieved information from several NSA whistleblowers. One of those whistleblowers, Russell Tice, recently testified before congress that NSA domestic surveillance programs may be much more widespread than the "limited" program that the Bush Adminstration has admitted. Tice has said that some programs could be monitoring "millions of Americans".

Robert O'Harrow, Jr. is an award-winning reporter for the Washingon Post with an expertise data mining and privacy issues. His recent book, No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, describes "a surveillance society that's less centralized and more a joint public/private venture".

Together, Risen and O'Harrow paint a picture of an enormous partnership between U.S. intelligence agencies and private data collection firms. Spying agencies like the NSA can leverage its' massive computing power to mine data collected by these private firms. The result is a mind-boggling domestic surveillance capability with access to nearly any information imaginable. Phone calls, email, video as well as financial, criminal and other personal records can all be searched at the same time. The NSA's powerful computers can mine the data to find otherwise imperceptible links for profiling groups and individuals.

Russert calls it a "sobering" discussion. The interview only scratches the surface of how extensive the scope of Big Brother's monitoring of Americans may be. The surveillance programs are a dramatic departure from what the public has come to believe. It's easy to see why the Bush Administration has avoided legislation and oversight.
As I mentioned the other day, I've been holding off on publishing this because I'm going to be interviewing Larisa Alexandrovna in the final edition of the series about this very topic soon (hopefully) and was going to release it at the same time - but given the announcement that Hayden has been nominated to replace Goss at CIA, people should be aware of this stuff in preparation for the confirmation hearings.

In essence, the NSA has long been able to "download an entire country's telecommunications system - and then store it in their data systems" and are now 'possibly' (wiggle word) doing the same in the USA. In other words, they can even retrospectively listen to your phone calls. All of them.

And if that's not enough, add this into the mix:
"(The Matrix can) take the scrap of a license plate, a gender, skin color, hair color - and you could place those things in, with maybe a zipcode - and you could find a list of people who fit exactly that qualification. People who saw this system in operation - intelligence officials, law enforcement folks - said that it literally blew them away - how fast it could pick up the right people - but their neighbours, their photographs - whatever was entered into the system, it could retrieve it instantly"
And if that doesn't scare you, there's even mention of a "50,000 mile high stack of bibles " which of course gets Russert all excited - although my perfunctory back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that a 50,000 mile high stack of bibles is approximately the same height as a 50,000 mile high stack of pumpkinheads.

Russert also manages to squeeze in a reference to Big Russ - and if you dont have time to listen to the interview, it's worth your time to go right to the last sentence just to hear him describe the whole thing as 'haunting' - Russert is totally freaked out.


Russert: Enter James Risen, who wrote the story first for the New York Times, and then his book about the NSA - National Security Agency - eavesdropping, in America, picking up phone calls from here to overseas - trying to help in the war on terror. What kind of technology is used to do that?

Risen: Most of the NSA program that we've written about is highly classified - and we only really have the outlines of the technical side of it but what we do know is that what the NSA has done is gotten the approval and authorization from President Bush and the acceptance of some of the major telecoms companies to access the major switches that are the gateways and the hubs between the domestic telecommunications system and the international telecommunications system.

Russert: Explain that

Risen: Essentially there are a series of major gateways along the borders of the US telecommunications network that are basically the entry and exit for the major fiber optics lines going in and out of the country - for email, telephone, cellphone - everything - and as communications come in and out of this country - they have to go through major gateways/ hubs/switches - and it's at that point that the NSA has gotten back doors from these major telecommunications companies to basically vacuum up things going in and out. The question that we are still wrestling with - to understand this program - there seems to be two major aspects of it. One is actual eavesdropping on individuals - of their communications - email and telephone going through those hubs - and there also seems to be large data-mining operations being conducted by NSA into this bloodstream of the telecommunications network. It seems that those two operations are separate but parallel. In other words, they're both doing this warrantless eavesdropping on individuals, and at the same time they're doing this larger data-mining operation - looking for patterns of telephone and email usage - and behaviour.

Russert: so when you say 'data-mining' - they have a name and they keep trying to find out how that person is behaving?

Risen: well - the possibilities for the way you could do it would be very extensive. You could look for anybody using the word 'jihad' for instance - or osama bin laden - in their communications - in their email or phone calls. And then you could look for patterns of people using that. That is essentially what Echelon is - Echelon is the public name for what the NSA has been doing overseas for many years. They have been doing keyword searches all over the world, outside of the US in the past - using their vast computing power and their ability to monitor foreign communications. Now it's possible they are doing the same thing inside the US.

Russert: Robert O'Harrow - you use the term 'the security-industrial-complex' - explain.

O'Harrow: Many people recall Eisenhower warned about the Military-Industrial-Complex when he left the WhiteHouse in 1961 - and it was a powerful message that he wanted to leave with the American people that the military machinery - the industrial machinery that was helping to protect us during the Cold War - and the military bureaucracy had very strong ties. And he warned that those very strong ties were developing and strengthening in secret - outside of public scrutiny, and outside of public accountability. And he said that those relationships, and that new power, threatened our American values of democracy and openness.

The security-industrial-complex is a term to echo Eisenhower's warning in the sense that there is now a security-industrial-complex in the ties between the information industries which are the computer suppliers and the network builders and the information companies and the government to protect us - and there's no question that we not only can net-benefit - but we have to use information technology well in this new world - and there's tremendous benefits.

But I think what I documented pretty well is that a lot of this is happening behind the cloak of secrecy - and it's way beyond our understanding, and our laws, and regulations and from an old-fashioned journalistic perspective, I find that unacceptable - and I think many Americans will too when they come to understand. Because we don't accept unchecked power in this country.

Russert: Without revealing your sources - can you tell us about any agenda they have had - or what their interest was in bringing forward this story to you?

O'Harrow: I think the only agenda they had was that they believe that this was something that the American people had to know. There are people in the government who believe that this was potentially illegal - and possibly unconstitutional. Warrantless eavesdropping is potentially unconstitutional - and in the minds of some people, violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). I think that there could be some sleight of hand here. If we go back to the debate that preceded FISA - the law was clearly intended to serve as a check for the Imperial Presidency. In the late 60's and early 70's, the WhiteHouse authorized all sorts of intrusions - surveillance, eavesdropping - that we now know was clearly abusive and in some cases illegal. FISA was intended to give the government a very free hand, while having a process of oversight - as secret as it is. Here the White House appears to be arguing that even that free-hand - even that speed and authority that they have - that is rarely rejected - is not sufficient. That's one point - the other point is that I think it's likely that part of the reason that they didn't invoke FISA is because so much of this wasn't contemplated by the law. Technology has changed so that the real surveillance - the real sweep of it here quite possibly could involve hundreds of thousands or millions of people whose information was crunched by these datamines that the NSA operates. In crunching all of this information about the times of the calls, the locations, the targets, the associates of the callers - this HUGE datamining operation - they were able to derive several thousand targets - five to ten thousand. That wasn't contemplated by FISA when it was passed because the technology didn't exist at the time.

Risen: I think one thing we should point out - a lot of people say 'well - why is this such a big deal?' - We've gotta remember that the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade is considered by many experts to be the location of the largest computing power concentrated anywhere in the world - and so the ability to unleash the NSA into the US takes you to a new level of surveillance possibilities

Russert: Jim Risen - when your article & book came out - there was a lot of conversation about this subject - and people asked 'why didn't the administration just try to change the existing law from 1978?'

Risen: They have never made clear to us or anybody else in the press exactly what their full thinking was at the time, after 911, about why they didn't try to get this into the Patriot Act. You've gotta remember that they essentially started this program more-or-less at the same time the Congress was discussing the Patriot Act which expanded the surveillance powers of the government domestically. The most logical answer is that this program is so much larger than normal wiretapping by the FBI and criminal cases - or in domestic terrorism cases - that it's a much larger program, I think, in various ways than they have acknowledged publicly and I think that may be the bottom line here.

Russert: In the last decade we have accumulated more information than since the beginning of time - and some of these companies - how much information do they have? Axiom - how much info do they have?

O'Harrow: I worked on the back of an envelope that Acxiom has roughly the equivalent of a 50,000 mile high stack of bibles

Russert: 50,000 miles! From here to California is 3000 miles. 50,000 miles worth of bibles!

O'Harrow: One Choicepoint official estimated that if you lay the paper end-to-end, the amount of information they have would take you 77 times around the moon. That's a lot of paper, and that's a lot of data. I want to go back to something that Jim said about the timing of the NSA surveillance initiative. I don't think people realise the degree to which - in a very earnest effort to respond to the horrific terror attacks on 911 - the government reached out and received help from private companies of all sorts. Everybody from grocery stores to virtually every airline, banks, credit issuers, companies like Acxiom and Choicepoint and Lexis Nexis - there was this spasm to look into information so that the idea that the NSA was somehow helping shouldn't come as a surprise - except it did to me even - because the rules were so clearcut.


Russert: We were in the middle of our discussion, Robert, about after Sep11, the mindset in this country. My dad kept saying that it reminded me of Pearl Harbour - where people wanted to come forward to sign up for the cause - they wanted to be part of it - but its now much more complicated in 2006 and you were mentioning that some of the things that businesses wanted to offer the government, with all the best intentions but they obviously raise a lot of concerns as to how much it invades our privacy.

O'Harrow: Let me give you a good example of a company that wanted to help - an individual that wanted to help. There was a company called SeisInt which is short for 'seismic intelligence' - and SeisInt was a Florida-based company that thought that it could do database marketing better than anyone else. And in fact, they found some ways to do that - they developed a computer system that was a defacto supercomputer - they collected billions and billions of records - probably 20 billion by the time that 911 occurred - and the owner of the company was a data genius of sorts. He created a system that was a profiling system - it soon became a tool for the war on terror. This company in Florida in effect became an outpost in the war on terror for secret service, intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, and it was called The Matrix. It could take the scrap of a license plate, a gender, skin color, hair color - and you could place those things in, with maybe a zipcode - and you could find a list of people who fit exactly that qualification. People who saw this system in operation - intelligence officials, law enforcement folks - said that it literally blew them away - how fast it could pick up the right people - but their neighbours, their photographs - whatever was entered into the system, it could retrieve it instantly. That system now is a Homeland Security tool - it was bought by another contractor, Lexis Nexis, and you know - good luck finding out exactly how it's being applied.

Russert: Do the people involved in using it have any sense - or sensibility - of how far they're going - or where the line is between National Security and individual rights?

O'Harrow: There's a company called ChoicePoint - they are one of the leaders in working with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In fact Freedom of Information documents show that they have a contract with the CIA. It's really interesting because they've got a cache of information about every adult in America that is instantly accessible. It has tools that can show the links - in a chart - between the three of us - and everybody else in this building - and yet it's a CIA tool. What is the CIA doing with a company's systems like ChoicePoint's?

To answer your question, ChoicePoint has become so powerful - they have so much information - so many tools - including genetics, fingerprints, criminal dossiers and such - that their CEO actually told me on the record that we need more regulation. Otherwise this could all explode. When people come to understand it they could have a backlash - so they have actually asked for more regulation. Is that a marketing ploy? It remains to be seen.

Risen: Just to follow up on that - I think that this is one of those sleeper issues - you get the feeling that it's building up - and because we haven't put a human face on this crisis yet - like we have in other scandals - once there's some big, very human, tragedy that happens, I think that's what it will take for Congress and the American people to really begin to focus on this.

Russert: The administration felt pretty comfortable after you piece came out - they were able to turn the debate into one on National Security and defending the country against terrorists rather than civil liberties

Risen: Right - I think that one of the issues that we still don't know - because the NSA program is still so secretive - we don't know yet whether there have been abuses. And I think that's one of the hard parts about this. The people who have been targeted - either by the NSA program or through private targeting programs don't know that they're victims - because all of these things are so secret

Russert: You mention the NSA campus - What capability do they have? I'm not suggesting they're using it - but do they have the capability of listening in to every phone call in America?

Risen: I think that we can look at what they've done overseas - because that's where they've applied the full resources that they've had for a generation - they have listening stations all over the world - where they can download an entire country's telecommunications system - and then store it in their data systems. They have satellites, ground stations, and then they have secret units attached - usually with joint systems with the CIA - which they can then tap into fiber-optics lines around the world - in clandestine operations - to get directly into telephone and email networks around the world - so they have enormous capabilities.

O'Harrow: A couple of thoughts to echo the interesting stuff that what Jim was saying - there are going to be people who accurately say that the private companies - and the NSA and the CIA are overwhelmed by data. At some level that is true - they're collecting more than they can make sense of - in this given moment of time - but don't be misled by that, because the ability to collect information is one thing. They're getting much much better at applying the data - and the tools that they have - so that this power is increasing dramatically - and people need to realise that we're at the beginning of this data revolution - and that the NSA is way out in front of everybody else - and their capabilities are improving by the minute. So that - I think what Jim is suggesting about confronting this issue - having a human face on it - I would argue that we want to find the balance - sooner rather than later - because while we may be overwhelmed by data, they're getting better and better all the time.

Russert: Do you have any indication if someone is listening in on your phone call or tapping your email?

Risen: Basically, No. If the government wants to wiretap you or eavesdrop you - they don't go to your phone and stick a line on it - they're back at the phone company. They're getting into the major switches - it's all digital, it's all computerised - and for the most part I don't think you'd ever know.

Russert: So - you'd be completely unaware.... How does a person protect themselves from what we're talking about?

O'Harrow: Let me just elaborate on what Jim just said. There's no reason why you'd ever hear anything - or know anything - because all they're doing is mining the data that exists in a computer - so it doesn't matter if they're mining it for video, or for sound, or voice, or anything. And I think it's important to recognise that, because there's a company in Long Island, for example, called VerInt - short for Verifiable Intelligence - they sell eavesdropping equipment to the Defense Dept. They also sell voice recognition systems to call centers, to retailers, and to the IRS as well. So when you call, that system is automatically looking for keywords - that might indicate that you have a problem or have profit potential, and they can key their script to you in a different way.

Risen: One of the things that Congress - in the 90's - really institutionalized this and formalized this in a law called CALEA which was a law that requires software companies and telecoms companies to basically install access when they're designing software for law enforcement to get into it - whenever they want. So essentially all new software - on cellphones, on phones, on computers - telecoms software - they build in access for the government.

O'Harrow: You asked a question about protecting yourself - and I guess I'd answer it in this way: The reason the Jim's work about the NSA is so important is that it raises the cloak on what the government is capable of doing - and we're just getting a glimpse of that very bright light. And the reason that it's important is that people understand that there were clear lines that were drawn in the 70s in response to abuses - and it appears that those lines were side-stepped. And so many things were side-stepped after 911 in order to protect us. The reason that this is important is that we can't protect ourselves if we wanted to against this new source of power - and that's because it is all digital - and it's not in our control - it's in the control of the companies that are serving as - in effect - private intelligence agencies - it's in the control of the NSA - and that's not to say that these are nefarious people - but this is a new source of power that is largely unchecked. We only have a hodge-podge set of rules and laws and so - basically, most people cant really protect themselves.

Russert: A brave new world. But Jim Risen, think about this - if you have an RFID chip embedded in your hand - airport security, credit cards, groceries - whatever its going to be in the future - couldn't the NSA know exactly where you are, every second of the day?

Risen: Yes. Absolutely - that's one of the reasons why we need rules - for this whole regime for domestic, corporate, and government intelligence. Essentially what we're talking about is a large intelligence operation - this is new kinds of intelligence. We don't have spies walking around Bethesda looking for Tim Russert - but we've got this stuff! Digital spies running around Bethesda looking for you

Russert: We are now in a big debate in Washington about our ports and things. If in fact companies have this information, why couldn't they sell it to foreign governments? Or could foreign governments invest in our domestic companies that gather this information?

O'Harrow: Regarding ChoicePoint, I can say with certainty, because I've spoken to this person, there is an intelligence official - with an agency that will remain unnamed - who expressed very grave reservations about foreign companies doing just that - setting up a front company, just like this fellow in California, and getting an account with LexisNexis, Seisint, ChoicePoint - you name it - other information brokers - and for example checking the manifest of every plane coming into their country. They can now check those dossiers in such a way that if somebody claiming to be a Tim Russert flies in but they don't have the right kind of history - they don't have a long enough credit report, or something seems screwy - they can determine that that is not a real person - that he's a front - and perhaps an intelligence operative going to do business for us. That's a very serious risk - and the intelligence community is worried about it.

Russert: Robert's book begins with this, James Risen, "Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasions of their liberty by evil minded rulers. They greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal - well meaning but without understanding." Justice Lewis Brandeis.

Risen: I think that's a great quote - and it goes right to the heart of all of the things that we now know about what the Bush administration has been doing since 911. Not just surveillance, but in terms of detentions and secret prisons around the world. I think all of these things were done with the best of intentions. Five years after 911, it's time for us as a country to debate how permanent we want this kind of post-911 security regime.

Russert: James Risen, State of War, Robert O'Harrow Jnr, No Place to Hide - Thank you for a very interesting, sobering and - haunting - conversation. I think a lot of people will be thinking about this for a long time to come. Thanks a lot.

(note: For technical reasons, I did the transcription from the audio, so there's a small chance that I may have mistaken Risen for O'Harrow at some point/s.)


rimone said...

why am i not surprised that choicepoint is in the mix? from my post back in september 04, quoting Greg Palast: 'on september 11, 2001, we amerikans were the victims of a terrible attack. by september 12, we became the suspects...

...‘even before the spying work could begin, there were all those pieces of people to collect, tubes marked “DM” (for “disaster manhattan"), from which his company, ChoicePoint Inc, would extract DNA for victim identification, work for which the firm would receive $12 million from NYC’s government.

‘for smith’s choicePoint Inc, Ground Zero would become a profit center lined with gold. as the towers fell, choicePoint’s stock rose; and from Ground Zero, contracts gushed forth from War on Terror fever. why? because this outfit is holding no less 16 billion records on every living and dying being in the USA...'

plus, i believe their security was compromised about a year or so ago...lovely.

Don said...

More from Palast:
Early in the year, the company ChoicePoint gave Florida officials the names of 8,000 ex-felons to "scrub" from their list of voters...The state signed in 1998 a $4 million contract with DBT Online, since merged into ChoicePoint, of Atlanta.

...and thus did the Great Decider ride to power on the backs of tens of thousands of suppressed voters.

"You can trust us with your security and liberty."

Uh-huh... no further than I could comfortably spit a rat.