Friday, October 10, 2008

Same old spying, different day

The once super-secret National Security Agency has again been caught spying on the international phone calls of Americans. An ABC report anticipating the release of NSA expert James Bamford's latest book about the agency says that "US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted" and their telephone conversations recorded by the NSA.

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

While some important information, including planned terrorist attacks, was scooped up, most of the intercepted phone calls were banal, and personal conversations -- including phone sex -- became entertainment fodder for the intelligence workers.

As disturbing as these allegations are, it should be noted that they're not exactly new. In fact, the interceptions detailed by Kinne and fellow whistleblower David Murfee Faulk bring back talk of the Echelon surveillance system reported by several journalists in the 1990s. Echelon was (or is) reportedly a joint project of intelligence agencies in the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. It is said to have existed for several decades, with increasing sophistication over that time, and to be able, by the end of the 1990s, to intercept email, faxes, telephone calls and other electronic communications.

U.S. intelligence officials publicly denied the ability to conduct such surveillance, while wishing the capability existed, and some technical experts were doubtful that the government had the ability to do anything as far-reaching as what critics claimed. But the European Parliament issued a lengthy report (PDF) in 2001 concluding "[t]hat a global system for intercepting communications exists, operating by means of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the UKUSA Agreement, is no longer in doubt." The report found that Echelon's abilities had probably been exaggerated in the press, but that it was an extensive system that was being used for, among other purposes, industrial espionage.

The report also assumed that France and Russia had similar capabilities of their own.

During the 1990s, the niece of a U.S. Navy admiral told me of applying for a job at the NSA. She claims that during the course of an interview, the people conducting the meeting played back a recording of an international phone call she had made some time before. Her impression was that they were showing off a bit because of her family connection. She was suitably impressed.

The decades-long existence of both the intent and the ability of the NSA to intercept Americans' international comunications (and domestic communications too, limited only by the uncertain constraints of the law) makes it clear that this is no aberration to be dismissed by taking a broom to the White House. Presidents and their appointees from both parties have overseen intelligence agencies engaged in such surveillance for as long as it has been possible.

That intelligence gathering of some sort is a necessary evil is clear -- especially post-9/11. Whistleblower David Faulk told ABC, "IED's were disarmed before they exploded, that people who were intending to harm US forces were captured ahead of time."

But any power that can be used can also be abused. We should be glad that the abuses reported to-date have been on the level of fraternity pranks, and not official policy.

Of course, those are the reported abuses. We don't know what else is going on behind the scenes.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 19, 2009 2:11 AM  

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