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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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Terrorists target everyone too
By Beenthere on 1/24/2009 4:27:04 PM , Rating: -1
I have no problem with anyone monitoring me. I have a real problem with Terrorists trying to kill innocent civilians. I am happy to do what ever it takes - including being monitored - to reduce the killing of innocent Americans by Terrorists all over the world.

RE: Terrorists target everyone too
By LibertyFace on 1/24/2009 5:18:19 PM , Rating: 5
Hitler and hermann goring had the reichstag parliament building set ablaze then blamed it on terrorist. He used this excuse to consolidate dictatorial executive power and went after communists and labor union members all in the name of fighting terrorism. Thats like saying "well hey, I'm not jewish, what do I have to hide?"

Let's not forget our favorite quote from benjamin franklin "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Don't forget, your security and safety can never be guaranteed.

By descendency on 1/25/2009 6:49:01 PM , Rating: 2
It's so great to quote a senile woman abusing French lover.

Benjamin Franklin, the greatest American to spend most of his life in Europe.

You can not have liberty without safety. Your national sovereignty gives you liberty (this is a right understood by the people who fought britian for independence, fought against the spanish and british who caused problems in the colonies, fought brothers to retain it, and so on). When terrorist attack the US, they wish to destroy it. So, when they cause another catastrophe, free free to enjoy watching the destruction of your basic liberties.

Without basic safety, you can NOT have liberty. This is something even a crazed Abraham Maslow understood.

By William Gaatjes on 1/25/2009 6:58:10 PM , Rating: 2
What does your example has to do with the NSA ?
You are comparing a charismatic maniac with a government department. Your example even does not compare more with pearl harbour although there are more parallels in my opinion. And as i read our favorite quote, it just says : "Take care for eachother as a whole entity". And that means you have to keep an eye out for eachother. Not to give absolute power to a few persons as has happend back in the days in Germany, coming back to your history lesson.

RE: Terrorists target everyone too
By blowfish on 1/25/2009 10:29:55 AM , Rating: 1
Oh, do you mean like the recent mass killing of innocent civilians in Gaza? (or were all those school children also terrorists?)

I suppose you feel happy paying at least ten times more for airport screening, even though the screeners perform about a third as well as their predecessors and have the worst absenteeism rate of any government employees.

In seven years, they haven't even figured out that people need some more room to put their shoes, belts jackets etc back on.

But of course we don't see herds of elephants roaming our streets - so that proves the multi-billion dollar elephant powder program has worked and kept us safe for the last seven years. Why should it matter that they have taken away habeus corpus? After all, that's only been a right since the signing of the Magna Carta.

RE: Terrorists target everyone too
By abzillah on 1/25/2009 12:11:37 PM , Rating: 3
Yes those children were terrorist. Israel has right to defend itself.

RE: Terrorists target everyone too
By Squads on 1/25/2009 8:40:03 PM , Rating: 3
That reminds me of a Simpsons episode from back in it's heyday:

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm!
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Why thank you, honey.
Lisa: By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Hmm. How does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work; it’s just a stupid rock!
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Hmm... Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

For anyone claiming the "lack of terrorist attacks" over the past 7 years is attributable to government action/intervention, I am selling a great batch of anti-al-qaeda rocks.

People now have become so accustomed to being being safeguarded and protected that they seem to thrive on fear. Thus we have identity protection, flood insurance, ADT security systems, and the list goes on and on. Give me a beer and some Joe Walsh, enough with the bureaucratic b.s.

RE: Terrorists target everyone too
By fspikec on 1/31/2009 3:37:08 PM , Rating: 2
For anyone claiming the "lack of terrorist attacks" over the past 7 years is attributable to government action/intervention, I am selling a great batch of anti-al-qaeda rocks.

So let me get this straight. You are saying that the government played no role in preventing any and all terrorists attack attempts (in the US) in the past 7 years?

So I'm guessing the terrorists just decided to take a vacation and/or got over the hatred for the USA. Or maybe Chuck Norris got involved. Maybe they all gave up Islam and and adopted Scientology.

“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls
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