NSA Surveillance Eavesdropping on America

As part of its efforts to keep tabs on terrorists, America's National Security Agency (NSA) is mining data from millions of telephone conversations made by US citizens. Approved by President George Bush, the controversial surveillance operation is threatening to become a political liability for his administration.
Von Hans Hoyng und Georg Mascolo

Residents call their town located just outside Washington "Crypto City." It's near Fort Meade, Maryland, but it doesn't appear on any maps.

If it did, the home of America's National Security Agency (NSA) would be one of the state's largest municipalities, with 17,000 parking spaces, over 3 miles of streets and its own police force. A giant banner proudly states that the United States' most expensive intelligence agency: "Won't Back Down." Candy bars and aspirin are the biggest sellers at vending machines in the organization's huge Operations Center, which is big enough to hold the entire US Capitol in Washington four times over. Eavesdropping is as big an enterprise as it is an exhausting one.

And the employees at Crypto City certainly have plenty to do at the moment. Each day the center receives millions of tapped phone conversations, intercepted e-mails and data from bugged computers. US Navy submarines have installed NSA listening stations on the ocean floor, where the wired world's communication cables run, which then beam streams of electronic data back to Maryland.

But the data streams are more like raging rivers these days. According to a poster in the Operations Center, the volume of data traffic on the Internet doubles every 100 days and 35 million messages are left on the world's answering machines and voicemail systems every hour.

Considering that's precisely the kind information the NSA is looking for, it's nothing short of amazing that many Americans imagined their own excellently wired nation to be somehow exempt from the agency's data collection efforts. Most felt secure in the knowledge that there are laws on the books requiring a court-sanctioned warrant for spying on ordinary US citizens.

Spying on America

But since last week the American public knows better. The news that several major communications companies provided the NSA with more than a billion pieces of data from phone calls and e-mails conjured up the worst Orwellian images of Big Brother. The massive database knows who spoke with whom and for how long. The agency can determine not only which US citizens received a call or an e-mail from places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the IT spooks with their state-of-the-art computers can also sort through the vast flood of data to identify everyone who has been in contact with them. The system allows NSA officials to develop behavioral patterns, define groups and detect previously undetected connections -- quickly turning a single suspect into hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands. The pool consisting of data derived from America's long-distance phone connections serves as the basis for deciding who will then be subject to even more scrutiny by the government.

None of this data is destroyed, as millions of new information sources are added to the pool each day. The implication is clear: Someone who may not attract attention today could quickly end up in the sights of the NSA's data miners tomorrow.

This spying on the normal communications of Americans, uncovered last week in the daily newspaper USA Today, has sparked a wave of outrage. The story has proven earlier statements made by the Bush administration -- defending itself against allegations of overzealous wiretapping -- false. It's now clear that the practice hasn't only affected a small number of clearly suspicious individuals. The latest revelations about the government's practice of spying on average Americans have even prompted some of Bush's most loyal supporters to express doubts about what the government is doing. John Boehner, Republican majority leader in the US House of Representatives, is demanding a full investigation into the scope of the highly classified program. Senator Arlen Specter, head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to subpoena senior executives at several US telecommunications corporations, who have been consistently silent on the matter until now. A furious Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy fired angry question in the direction of the president: "Are you telling me that millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida?"

Bush on the defensive

Bush, who approved the NSA's actions, has been forced to defend the program. "We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said. But to many US citizens, that's exactly what it appears like the government is doing. It hasn't help that the president has refused to reveal the details of his administration's intelligence activities, claiming that it would "only help the enemy."

Michael Hayden, whom Bush recently nominated to be his new CIA director, could end up being the first victim of public outrage over government spying on the entire nation. As head of the NSA from 1999 to 2005, the four-star general can at least be accused of misleading US legislators. Testifying before Congress in October 2002 -- when his agency had long since cast off all legal inhibitions over spying on ordinary Americans -- Hayden complained that legal requirements would make it impossible for the agency to listen in on Osama bin Laden's telephone conversations if the terrorist leader were to enter the United States. He told members of Congress that he needed more flexibility to avert danger.

But he had long since availed himself of that flexibility. On Sept. 10, 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks that changed America, the NSA's antennas intercepted two phone calls from Afghanistan. One of the conversations spoke of "tomorrow is hour zero," while someone in the second mentioned that "the game begins." But the information was ignored. The biggest intelligence agency in world history had failed, and friends say that Hayden was deeply shaken.

Even greater than his worries over accusations of failure was the fear of a second wave of attacks on the west coast. US intelligence agents believed that al-Qaida may already have smuggled additional terrorists into the country. To search for the supposed threats, Hayden decided to use his agency's enormous resources and had the NSA's wiretapping resources aimed directly at America.

At first, no one thought of obtaining court authorization for this step, despite the fact that the NSA has been required to obtain a special warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap the conversations of American citizens since 1978. The court, which meets in a bug-proof room on the top floor of the US Department of Justice, was established after it was revealed that the government had spied on thousands of war critics during the Vietnam War. The new legislation was designed to prevent the NSA's almost limitless capabilities from being used against US citizens. But after the shock of the 9/11 attacks, the White House sought to eliminate these legal safeguards and the president signed an executive order giving the NSA extensive secret powers.

Expanding executive powers

Bush is convinced that he is truly waging a war, and in times of war the president, as commander-in-chief, should enjoy practically unlimited powers. The Bush administration has used this supposedly unlimited authority to its fullest extent, sending terror suspects to countries known to torture their prisoners and developing and approving interrogation methods that led to human rights violations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The administration, it seems, has reserved the right to break the law in the name of its own holy war.

Even the rights of American citizens are no longer guaranteed. Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2000 election, Al Gore, has accused the administration of a "truly breathtaking expansion of executive power."

Bush has made great use of so-called presidential signing statements, which are issued when the president signs a bill into law, to push his imperial agenda. In a signing statement, the president explains his interpretation of a law approved by Congress and how he intends to apply that law.

In December, for example, Congress passed a strict ban on torture in an overwhelming majority vote, a bill Bush signed. But in a separate statement, he determined that the provisions for execution of the law must be "consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary executive." In other words, the president, if he believes that torture is necessary, can essentially bypass the law and issue an executive order allowing it. Bush has already issued 750 signing statements, making clear what sort of defense the president would mount if Congress ever dared to try and impeachment him.

Of course, no one has dared -- yet. After all, who wants to challenge the commander-in-chief when the country is still supposedly at war?

The eavesdropping program, approved as part of the Bush administration's "war on terror," is based on the logic of computer dragnet: Lacking of a real targets, everyone is a potential suspect. "We just have to explore many dead-end leads to find that one bit of critical information," Hayden said, explaining the NSA's data mining operations. "We're waging a war," says General Keith Alexander, his successor at the agency. The circle of the initiated has remained so small that not even the attorneys of the National Security Council at the White House were asked for a legal opinion.

Hiding the truth

In December, Bush attempted to prevent initial revelations about the program by inviting the editors of the New York Times to the Oval Office and appealing to their sense of patriotism. When the paper did in fact disclose parts of the wiretapping program, the president claimed that only those communications with people abroad were targeted. But this too has since turned out to be only half the truth.

Each day the NSA dives deeper into the nation's pool of electronic data. To keep up, the agency has always relied on close cooperation with the country's telecom industry. A third of worldwide communications already pass through American networks each day, but the NSA would like to see that share increase.

Mark Klein, a former engineer with AT&T, recently disclosed just how seamless the NSA's clandestine cooperation with the industry is. According to Klein, an NSA wiretapping facility was set up in a room adjacent to an AT&T switching center in San Francisco, where intelligence agents had linked their equipment to the company's Internet and telephone hub. NSA agents, Klein said, had also turned up in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.

Klein, a 22-year veteran at the company, says that he can provide documents to back up his claims. A citizens' rights group has sued AT&T, but at the request of the company and the US Department of Justice, the 140 pages of the suit must remain classified for the time being.

In defending the program, Bush claims that Big Brother isn't listening, he's just collecting data. "There's a difference between searching and wiretapping," the president said, reflecting the NSA's argument that only monitoring by humans, not machines, constitutes a violation of privacy. But to stem the rising tide of criticism, the Bush administration will likely have to finally present the wiretapping operation's supposedly sensational successes to the American public. Vice President Dick Cheney, defending the program, has claimed that "thousands of lives were saved" by it.

Comparisons to Nixon

Meanwhile the president, whose approval ratings have reached record lows, is being compared with former president Richard Nixon, a man who is still viewed as the epitome of a rogue occupying the country's highest office. Indeed, the intelligence agencies' legally questionable wiretapping powers have reminded some US commentators of Nixon's legendary statement: "When the President does it that means that it's not illegal."

Civil liberties groups have even taken out newspaper ads depicting the two Republican presidents side-by-side. The caption under the Nixon portrait reads: "This man wasn't above the law." And under the image of Bush: "Neither is he."

A US president's approval rating has rarely been this low leading into midterm elections. Only 31 percent of Americans now approve of Bush's performance. An era is coming to an end. The man who once dictated the West's response to the challenge from al-Qaida with unwavering self-confidence appears to be losing friends and allies daily.

The Democrats are beginning to nurture hopes that they could finally regain a majority in Congress in November's elections. The clearest indicator of a White House overcome with something approaching panic is the job Bush gave his close advisor, Karl Rove, when he reorganized his top echelon. Bush now wants the brilliant campaign strategist to focus exclusively on rebuilding his party's heavily damaged support among voters.

But some Republican leaders in Congress continue to distance themselves from their president. When Bush implored his fellow conservatives not to approve a budget that would worsen the country's already massive deficit, his pleas fell on deaf ears. The Republican legislators, concerned mainly with saving their own skins come November, instead took the opportunity last week to distribute plenty of pork to their constituents.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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