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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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RE: Kieth Olberman? Please...
By MadMan007 on 1/24/2009 7:21:31 PM , Rating: 2
I didn't read the word 'Bush,' explicit or implicit, anywhere in the article. Naturally if these programs were pushed or especially started during his administration with his knowledge and consent then his administration is responsible. More likely it's a combination of at least implicit consent form the administration and the continuation of programs that had taken on a bureaucratic life of their own. If he was really decent guy he'd uphold his oath to defend the constitution not render it asunder. And it's not just lefties who have issues with Bush & Co.

RE: Kieth Olberman? Please...
By Octoberblue on 1/24/2009 9:30:39 PM , Rating: 2
The end of your statement reveals the hipocrasy of the beginning. Of course the Olberman interview was about trying to destroy Bush. He is one of many fellow travelers who believe such unfounded nonsense as Bush trying to render the constitution asunder. I don't agree with all of the decisions Bush made. But I also realize it's easy to say that when you're not the one having to make the decisions. And the NSA story is such paranoid nonsense. Of course the wiretapping was "warrantless". The point of a warrant is to try and prosecute someone. The purpose of NSA surveillance is to prevent a terrorist act.

The NSA couldn't care less who's calling 900 numbers or making arrangements to pick up a bag of weed. They know that nothing they gather would ever be admissible in court. It's not about court. It's about prevention, not prosecution, and certainly not persecution. And the guy who compared terrorists to Jews in Nazi Germany. That's just incredible. Hitler was a terrorist. It is the terrorist leaders who are like Hitler. Bush is nothing like either of them. His efforts to defend the constitution were focused primarily on providing for the common defense, and perhaps he was too singular in that focus. But he never violated the Constitution, let alone render it asunder. Gathering intelligence on enemy activities has always been part of the job of the Commander-in-Chief. Whether this intelligence happens to be gathered on U.S. soil or not has never historically mattered. Most recently, Bill Clinton used echelon for this purpose.

But lets at least be clear about what is and is not a violation of your rights. If someone gathers information about you and attempts to use it against you in a court of law, that is a violation of your rights. Or if they attempt to use it against you to smear your reputation, that's a violation of your rights. That has never once happened under the Bush administration.

But having a computer scan the phone systems looking for words like "Jihad", and word patterns that imply hostility, and then not even paying attention to THAT unless your activity matches dozens of other terrorist-like activities. And then, finally, after all that, taking a closer look to see if you really are plotting to blow something up, and ignoring you if you're not... This is not a violation of your rights. It is a responsible and perfectly legal attempt to provide for the common defense.

RE: Kieth Olberman? Please...
By mindless1 on 1/25/2009 1:02:13 AM , Rating: 2
You don't seem to understand. The majority have an expectation of privacy, not just whether information is used against them or not.

The majority do not think "it's ok if my privacy is violated so long as I'm not prosecuted for something, it's ok if they have a reason that Octoberblue agrees with". The sentiments of the majority are why warrants exist, that oversight, authorization should be required regardless of whether the reason for the surveillance is terrorist activity or some other potential threat.

Let's be clear, your acceptance of the reason why they're violating our rights, does not inherently change that we quite specifically deem it unacceptable without a warrant. "We the people"

RE: Kieth Olberman? Please...
By Octoberblue on 1/25/2009 1:57:26 PM , Rating: 2
This is not a violation of your rights. It is not illegal. If it was, Bush would have been impeached instead of just railed against and howled at. Do you really think that with the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress for the past few years, as much as their leadership hates George W. Bush, that they would not have jumped at the chance to impeach him if it were possible?

It wasn't possible because it wasn't illegal. Which is why they went the route they did, trying to make everyone paranoid about it and attempting to get the courts to prevent it. These are the types of issues that are argued over frequently in our country. It's part of the process of our form of government. And it was not spelled out anywhere that the President could not do this for foreign intelligence purposes. Every administration has done similar things for that purpose. It's not a matter of whether Octoberblue happens to agree with it. It's part of Presidential authority. If it bothers you then you try to change it.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov
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