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Massive dragnet sweeps up communications metadata, and financial records, while targets have all of their communications recorded

In a scenario that sounds like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, former NSA analyst and now-whistleblower Russell Tice unveiled a massive NSA spying and wiretap program, which he claims vacuumed up an astonishing amount of communications and financial data on journalists and innocent Americans.

The program, which he claims is a remnant of the defunded 2003 “Total Information Awareness” initiative, swept up metadata (call length, envelope information, and so on) on nearly all forms of communications in the United States, as well as full communications logs for targets selected through analysis and other methods.

Tice, who previously helped shed light on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping facilities at AT&T switching offices, said in a Wednesday interview with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that the NSA “had access to all Americans' communications -- faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications.”

“It didn't matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country, and you never made foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.”

While working for the NSA, Tice says he was tasked with looking at U.S. news, reporting, and journalist organizations, specifically for the purpose of excluding them from NSA analysis. According to Tice, however, that order was just a cover story for something completely opposite. The news organizations he targeted were instead monitored by the NSA “24/7 and 365 days a year.”

“I started to investigate that. That's about the time when they came after me to fire me,” he said.

“This bait and switch idea, the ‘this is the discard pile, we’re not going to look at the media’ [where] it becomes apparent to you that the ‘discard’ pile is in fact the ‘save’ pile… how did that become apparent to you?” asked Olbermann.

“Well, as I was going for support for [a] particular organization, and it sort of was dropped to me that, you know, ‘this is done 24/7’,” replied Tice. “I would say, ‘I need collection at this time, at this point, for a window of time,’ and I would say, ‘will we have the capability at this particular point?’ in positioning assets.”

“I was ultimately told, ‘we don’t have to worry about that, because we’ve got it covered all the time.’ That’s when it clicked in my head that this was not being on a one-sy basis … this is something that’s happening all the time,” he said.

In a follow-up interview aired Thursday, Tice revealed that the communications data was then “married in” with financial records and credit card transactions.

“Throwing that information in too… your credit card records, where you spent your money … do you have any idea what this stuff was used for?” asked Olbermann.

“The obvious explanation would be, if you did have a potential terrorist, you'd want to know where they're spending money, whether they purchased an airline ticket, that sort of thing,” Tice replied.

Using criteria designed for catching terrorist-like activity – at one point, Tice speculated that if terrorists make short, 1- to 2- minute calls, then this might be a red flag applied to all such calls, such as “ordering pizza” – tens of thousands of innocent Americans were snagged into the system.

“This is garnered from algorithms that have been put together to try to just dream up scenarios that might be … associated with how a terrorist could operate,” said Tice on Thursday. “If someone just talked about the daily news and mentioned something about the Middle East, they could easily be brought to the forefront of having that little flag put by their name that says potential terrorist.”

Drawn up from anyone with a red flag, the combined communications and financial data could sit with a person for years, digitized and warehoused away. “Then all the sudden it marries up with something else 10 years from now, and they get put on a no-fly list [without having] a clue why,” explained Tice.

In most cases, spied-upon Americans didn’t do anything overtly suspicious to trigger surveillance.

Tice also elaborated on how the program was passed through Congressional oversight committees:

“The Agency would tailor some of their briefings to try to be deceptive for … someone who they really didn’t want to know exactly what was going on. There’d be a lot of bells and whistles in the briefing and, quite often, the meat of the briefing was deceptive.

“One of the things that could be done, was that you could take something that was part of the Department of Defense, make it part of the intelligence community, and put a caveat to that. [Then you could] make whatever the intelligence community is doing for support will ultimately be given a different caveat. When the defense committees on the hill come calling, you say ‘You can’t look at that because that’s an intelligence program,’ but when the intelligence program comes calling you say, ‘You can’t look at that because it’s a DoD program.’

“You’d basically have a little shell game that you’re playing back and forth.”

The NSA, when confronted with Tice’s allegations, replied it “considers the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to be sacrosanct,” noting that it faces “immense challenges in protecting our nation,” but, “remains dedicated to performing its mission under the rule of law.”

Tice could not say whether the program was still in operation, as his access to all such information was shut off after being fired in 2005. Shortly after voicing his initial allegations, as well as serving as a source for the New York Times article that launched the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s warrantless wiretapping investigation, Tice was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in what The Raw Story called “an apparent attempt at intimidation.”

Ars Technica notes that while communications metadata is exempt from fourth-amendment protections, a variety of U.S. laws protect this data by requiring a court order before it can be recorded.

This is not the first time the NSA has used underhanded tactics to track reporters. In April 2008, the U.S. government subpoenaed James Risen, co-author of the original New York Times article and a follow-up book called “State of War,” for phone records in order to track down his sources.

It is unclear how Tice’s allegations relate to AT&T’s infamous secure room 641A, which whistleblower Mark Klein alleged was used by the NSA to mirror all web traffic flowing through AT&T’s San Francisco switching center. Klein, who also appeared on Olbermann’s show, said he was ordered to install splitters on AT&T’s backbone that copied everything that passed through.

Klein’s allegations kicked off a massive investigation, as well as a series of lawsuits, from privacy groups such as the EFF and American Civil Liberties Unions.  While the Bush Administration successfully granted telecommunications companies amnesty for their assistance – essentially shutting down many of these lawsuits – a number of lawsuits born of these original complaints are working their way through U.S. courts today.

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Disgruntled Employee
By Reclaimer77 on 1/24/2009 12:45:01 PM , Rating: 2
Whistleblower ?

I find it hard to believe anyone didn't know the NSA ,of all people, were doing this. It was made public knowledge. We knew the federal government had this capability since CLINTON got Eschelon up and running.

“It didn't matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country, and you never made foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.”

If we didn't monitor ALL communications, and only targeted people from the middle east, we would have political correctness groups like the ACLU screaming bloody murder about "racial profiling." Just like we have old white grandmothers being frisked at the airport. When's the last time an old white lady blew up a plane ?

I'm sorry this guy got fired because he didn't toe the line, but this happens every day in government. And it's hardly 'whistleblower' level stuff he's revealing.

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By Hyraxxx on 1/24/2009 3:55:43 PM , Rating: 2
That's a good point about racial profiling. People make it out to be a bad thing. When it is perfectly legitimate in certain situations. Since the program could not target a certain group of people, they target everyone.

It's fair. I am scared though, not because of the survelience, but because of the enforcement of survielance. Once you get crazy extremest groups suing for the information. To protect against, robbers making phone calls, rapes, any crime involving children, animals, murder. Then that's when the shit hits the fan. It's the destructive power of the extremists groups perverting the system.

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By Aloonatic on 1/25/2009 9:00:14 AM , Rating: 3
Clinton set this up?

Next thing you'll be telling me is that Clinton overturned a law created after the great depression ( & to stop normal banks offering investment and commercial banking service as that was seen as one of the reasons why the original great depression (not the one that we are headed into now) happened and has been sighted as one of the reason for the current recession.

I thought that only evil Republicans did this sort of thing?

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By darklight0tr on 1/26/2009 9:38:54 AM , Rating: 3
Claiming that Clinton is solely responsible is misleading. Using the very links you posted it shows that 98% of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted for the bill, so both parties share the blame. Clinton's share is signing the bill into law in the first place.

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By mal1 on 1/27/2009 10:19:31 AM , Rating: 2
When are people going to realize that the whole left/right paradigm is set up as a mechanism to divide and conquer? As long as people are pointing fingers at the other party no significant changes will be made from a grassroots level and the politicians will continue to accomplish the bidding of their corporate sponsors.

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By Moishe on 1/26/2009 10:19:40 AM , Rating: 4
Being a generally conservative libertarian... I would rather have an occasional bombing than a loss of freedom.

The idea of "protecting us from crazies" is a good idea, but not at the cost of freedom. We can fight back against terrorists but fighting back against an insidious hidden government program that is kept alive only through deception and lies is close to impossible.

There is a fine line between where we are and a police state. It all hinges on the government respecting individual right to privacy. We are not yet a police state but each time the government is allowed to trample freedom in the name of the people we get just a little closer.

Like piracy, terrorism is going to be ever present. Instead of trying to stop the unstoppable we should be putting up reasonable safeguards and go about our lives with our privacy and freedom intact.

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By Reclaimer77 on 1/26/2009 7:21:55 PM , Rating: 2
Being a generally conservative libertarian... I would rather have an occasional bombing than a loss of freedom.

That's why you Libertarians are a bunch of wackos that will never take the White House. You fail to see freedom and rights mean nothing without safety. And telling me you would rather have bombings does nothing to change my mind about you.

A country that can't defend it's own borders isn't sovereign.

What freedom's have you lost by the way ?

Instead of trying to stop the unstoppable we should be putting up reasonable safeguards and go about our lives with our privacy and freedom intact.

I'm curious. If wiretapping isn't "reasonable", then what exactly is ? Maybe after 9/11 we should have just thrown every middle eastern in "camps" like we did in WWII with the Japanese ?

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By Wulfgang on 1/26/2009 10:15:52 PM , Rating: 2
That's why you Libertarians are a bunch of wackos that will never take the White House. You fail to see freedom and rights mean nothing without safety.

Singlehandedly turning Patrick Henry's famous maxim "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" on its head...

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By mal1 on 1/27/2009 10:31:29 AM , Rating: 2
"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

If you won't draw the line at tapping phone calls and monitoring internet usage, where do you draw it? Cameras, microphones and tracking devices in your car? In your house? Under your skin? Technology might not be too far off from monitoring your thoughts.

There can be no tolerance to the invasion of privacy without opening the floodgates of tyranny.

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By Steve Guilliot on 1/27/2009 5:41:33 PM , Rating: 2
Complete lunacy, with absolutely zero historical perspective.

I'm sorry, but I don't take the loss of privacy lightly. You ask what freedom's we have lost, but I say FU. To control you, they have to know ABOUT you. Just ask Hoover:

I think the second paragraph says it all. This is not hypothetical. Nevermind that they were targetting the press specifically...

RE: Disgruntled Employee
By sunjava04 on 1/26/09, Rating: 0
RE: Disgruntled Employee
By calyth on 1/26/2009 4:28:43 PM , Rating: 2
Well, the whole monitoring thing goes way back, long before Clinton.
Western Union used to ship copies of all telegraphs back in eitehr WWI or WW2 (I don't remember), and that was indiscriminate, and may not have a warrant.

This is what intelligence agencies do, they get information to the best of their abilities. If you don't want them to do certain things, regulate them. This is what happens when the boss (in this case, Bush), tell them to loosen it up. They have to vacuum up everything to get to all the stuff that they want, and because of that, they'll vacuum stuff that they shouldn't be looking. Bush merely told them, oh look into the stuff that NSA has no real mandate to look into anyways.

Domestic wiretapping falls under FBI afaik.

By mmcdonalataocdotgov on 1/27/2009 8:24:20 AM , Rating: 2
The real issue is that NSA was collecting metedata, not actual data, for the most part. They are profiling normal communications patterns in the US signal systems so that they can catch anomolous behavior in the system as an early warning to possible terrorist activity. Simple enough. I think this is the origin of the vague warnings of "an uptick in chatter."

However, consider that that uptick can be from people discussing an upcoming event, or discussing the latest terrorist warnings, so at some point it becomes Schrödinger's cat. By observing it, we change it. Now that the cat is out of the bag (or box), the system is no longer reliable. At least this bozo gets his 15 minutes and a small check for his "concern."

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