Declassified report points to flaws in post-9/11 NSA wiretapping

NSA's Utah Data CenterBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A lengthy United States government report into the post-9/11 communications interception program by the National Security Agency says it was limited in both usefulness and effectiveness. The report examines the controversial NSA program codenamed STELLAR WIND, initiated in the wake of 9/11 on direct orders by the then-President George W. Bush. It instructed the NSA to launch an extensive program of data mining of American citizens’ information, as well as monitor their telephone conversations, Internet activity and financial transactions. The existence of STELLAR WIND was revealed in 2005 by The New York Times, based on allegations by a US government whistleblower, who three years later identified himself as US Justice Department official Thomas M. Tamm. By that time, Congress had stepped in to formally legalize the program, which many criticized as unconstitutional.

Last Friday, The New York Times received an internal report on STELLAR WIND that was produced jointly in 2009 by the inspectors general of five American law enforcement and intelligence agencies. A short, unclassified summary of the document had been published by the Department of Justice when the report had first came out. But The Times have now received a complete —albeit redacted— version of the report, following a Freedom of Information lawsuit it filed last year. According to the paper, the report includes “several paragraphs” describing “success” cases that ensured from the information derived from STELLAR WIND. However, these are all redacted. But the report also points out that the program’s secrecy made it extremely obscure even within the US Intelligence Community and thus it “hampered its effectiveness” by making it less useful. It appears that only a small, select group of Central Intelligence Agency analysts even knew of the program’s existence, while Federal Bureau of Investigation analysts and agents were effectively unable to use the program due to its “highly classified status”.

The report also states that, as of 2009, senior American intelligence officials “struggled to identify any specific terrorist attacks that had been thwarted” by STELLAR WIND. Additionally, it appears that none of the counterterrorist leads derived from the program between August 2004 and January 2006 proved useful in FBI investigations.

News you may have missed #785 (interview edition)

Stella RimingtonBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Interview with first-ever NSA Compliance Director. John DeLong, the first-ever compliance director at the US National Security Agency, has given an interview to NextGov. In it, he says that “we’re nothing if we lose the confidence of the American people”. He is referring to frequent allegations, by whistleblowers and others, that the Agency is increasingly spying on Americans’ communications. As Compliance Director, DeLong is responsible for ensuring that the NSA abides by US law, which forbids it from intercepting electronic messages exchanged between US citizens or persons.
►►Ex-MI5 boss offers comment on WikiLeaks. Former MI5 Director-General Dame Stella Rimington has criticized “the indiscriminate pouring out into the public domain of streams of leaked documents by Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks organization”. But she also said that the US government should have taken better steps to prevent WikiLeaks from acquiring the information in the first place. Speaking at an international archiving conference in Brisbane, Australia, Dame Stella said that while the WikiLeaks saga could prompt the US government to come up with better databases, it would more likely encourage it to be even more secretive. This, she added, “must be absolutely the opposite effect of what WikiLeaks was seeking”.
►►Interview with NSA whistleblower. Filmmaker Laura Poitras interviews William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the US National Security Agency, who helped set up STELLAR WIND, the NSA’s top-secret domestic spying program, which was put in place after 9/11. The program was so controversial that it nearly caused top Justice Department officials to resign in protest in 2004. Binney, who resigned over STELLAR WIND in 2001, and began speaking out publicly in the last year, explains how the program he created for foreign intelligence gathering was turned inward on America.

Interview with NSA whistleblower

News you may have missed #774 (lawsuit edition)

NSA headquartersBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►NSA whistleblower sues over property seized in leak raid. Diane Roark, a former staffer for the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has filed a lawsuit to seek return of computers, electronic devices and papers seized from her home in 2007. Roark, who handled the House’s oversight of the National Security Agency from 1997 to 2002, was suspected by the FBI of being a source for The New York Times‘ disclosure of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program STELLAR WIND, which she denies.
►►Lawsuit forces US agency to disclose CIA files. The US Veterans Administration has been ordered to disclose documents relating to the CIA’s Cold War-era experimentation on American soldiers. Beginning in the 1950s, the military and CIA utilized former Nazi scientists to test the effects of 400 types of drugs and chemicals, including mescaline, LSD, amphetamines, mustard gas, and nerve agents, on US soldiers, according to a lawsuit brought by the Vietnam Veterans of America and individual soldiers. Under the lawsuit, a judge in California has ruled the VA must hand over documents pertaining to the use of at least 7,800 service personnel as “human guinea pigs” by the US Army and the CIA.
►►Syrian spy tried to infiltrate German intelligence. A suspected Syrian spy who was arrested in Germany earlier this year and has now been charged with espionage, once tried to infiltrate the country’s intelligence services, according to German officials. The man, identified only as Akram O., was employed by Syria’s embassy in Berlin, and tasked with keeping tabs on Syrian opposition activists living in Germany. His application to work for the German federal government was made “at the behest of his intelligence agency handlers”, according to prosecutors. His application was turned down, however. The Syrian national applied for German citizenship in 2009, which was also denied.

News you may have missed #748 (US edition)

Michael HaydenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►US lawmakers probe China companies over spy concerns. In letters sent last week to Chinese communications hardware firms Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation, a group of senior members of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee have outlined concerns about the companies’ ties with the Chinese government, including the role of a “party committee” at Huawei. The lawmakers have also asked about Huawei’s relationships with five US consulting firms and requested an expansive collection of documents, including the contracts between the firms and Huawei.
►►Lone Senator resists Bush/Obama NSA wiretapping plan. The Obama administration wanted a quick, no-questions-asked-or-answered renewal of broad electronic eavesdropping powers that largely legalized the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. That’s despite President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to revisit and revise the rules to protect Americans’ rights. Everything seemed to be going to plan after a Senate committee approved the re-authorization in secret last month. But Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has stepped in to stop the bill because the government refuses to say how often the spy powers are being used.
►►What did Hayden tell Obama in January 2009? In December of 2008, a meeting took place between the incoming US Presiden Barack Obama and the departing CIA Director Michael Hayden. Several days later, on January 15, Hayden told journalists that Obama had privately assured him that “no plans to launch a legal inquiry” into the CIA’s use of controversial interrogation methods during the Bush administration. Now, several years later, Salon has published an insider’s account of what was said in that meeting between Obama and Hayden, as well as during the days that followed.

News you may have missed #739

The US Department of DefenseBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►US Supreme Court to consider case on secret wiretapping. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider blocking a constitutional challenge to the government’s secret wiretapping of international phone calls and emails. At issue is whether Americans who have regular dealings with overseas clients and co-workers can sue to challenge the sweep of this surveillance if they have a “reasonable fear” their calls will be monitored. The case, to be heard in the fall, will put a spotlight on a secret surveillance program that won congressional approval in the last year of President George W. Bush’s presidency.
►►Analysis: Why is CIA applauding DoD’s intel grab? Last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new US espionage agency: the Defense Clandestine Service, or DCS. The new agency is expected to expand the Pentagon’s espionage personnel by several hundred over the next few years, while reportedly leaving budgets largely unchanged. The news nonetheless surprised some observers in Washington because the move appeared, at least initially, to be a direct challenge to the Central Intelligence Agency, whose National Clandestine Service leads the country’s spy work overseas. Then came a second surprise: former CIA officers and other intelligence experts started applauding. The question is why.
►►FBI forms secretive online surveillance unit. On May 22, CNet’s Declan McCullagh revealed that the FBI had quietly formed a new Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC), tasked with developing new electronic surveillance technologies, including intercepting Internet, wireless, and VoIP communications. According to McCullagh, DCAC’s goal is “to invent technology that will […] more readily eavesdrop on Internet and wireless communications”. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #702

James BamfordBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►NSA chief denies domestic spying allegations. In a rare break from the NSA’s tradition of listening but not speaking, National Security Agency chief General Keith Alexander was grilled last week on the topic of eavesdropping on Americans in front of a House subcommittee. The questioning from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) was prompted by Wired magazine’s cover story earlier this month on the NSA’s growing reach and capabilities. But author James Bamford (photo) and NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake insist that the NSA is quietly building America’s the largest spy center in Utah, as part of a secret domestic surveillance program codenamed STELLAR WIND.
►►NY police says it monitored Iran operatives taking photos. Speaking before the US House Homeland Security Committee, Michael Silber, director of New York Police Department Intelligence Analysis, said New York City Police have observed Iranian operatives photographing key transportation sites at least six times since September 11, 2001. He gave an example of six men on an East River sightseeing cruise in 2005, who paired off with maps and cell phones while taking photographs and videos of the bridges over the river. The NYPD determined each was on the payroll of Iranian government, one employed at Iran’s mission to the United Nations.
►►Major Canadian Cold War era mole hunt operation revealed. Newly released archival records show that even the cream of Canada’s foreign service was not immune from scrutiny in a top secret RCMP investigation known as Operation FEATHER BED. The probe, which stretched from the late 1950s into the 1970s, saw RCMP security branch investigators pore over the backgrounds of possible Communist sympathizers in the public service and political sphere —including a future Mountie spy chief. There is no evidence the highly confidential investigation ever identified a Soviet agent.

News you may have missed #657

Israel and IranBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Israeli company exported Internet-monitoring hardware to Iran. Israel bans all trade with its enemy, Iran. It turns out, however, that Israeli Internet-monitoring equipment has been finding its way to Iran for years, through Denmark. An Israeli company shipped the equipment to Denmark, where workers stripped away the packaging and removed the labels, before forwarding it to Iran. Now Israeli trade, customs and defense officials say they “did not know” that the systems were ending up in Iran.
►►Court decision revives NSA lawsuits. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the case of Jewel v NSA, which claims that after the 2001 terrorist attacks the NSA began large-scale monitoring of digital traffic, with the assistance of AT&T and others, can proceed. At the same time, the court denied leave to continue on a linked case against AT&T, for aiding and abetting the surveillance. The court upheld the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) revision, voted for by the current president, which grants the telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from any actions carried out during the period.
►►Czechs charged with espionage in Zambia sent home. Three Czech citizens, who were detained in Zambia on October 12, 2011, and charged with espionage, have returned home, the Czech Foreign Ministry said Sunday. A ministry spokesman declined to give any details on the return of the three Czechs, who were arrested after they were found taking pictures near military sites.

News you may have missed #582

John Yoo

John Yoo

►►US government conceals Bush surveillance memos. The Justice Department is refusing to release legal memos by lawyer John Yoo, which the George W. Bush administration used to justify its warrantless surveillance program, one of the most contentious civil liberties issues during the Republican president’s time in office.
►►Ex-CIA bin Laden Unit boss wants rendition back. Michael Scheuer, a former insider and vocal critic of the US intelligence establishment, has described the Arab revolutions as “an intelligence disaster for the US and for Britain, and other European services”. Speaking from Scotland, he also urged for a return to the Bush administration’s rendition program, in order to gather new intelligence on Middle Eastern and North African groups.
►►French firm helped Gaddafi spy on opposition. We have written before about technical intelligence support provided by Western firms to some of the world’s most brutal regimes, including Iran and Bahrain. We can no add Libya to the long list. The Wall Street Journal reports that Amesys, a subsidiary of French telecommunications firm Bull helped the Gaddafi regime spy on the emails and chat messages of its opponents.

Comment: Was the Killing of Osama bin Laden Legal?

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

By IAN ALLEN* | intelNews.org |
The reaction of Americans to news of the assassination of Osama bin Laden has been overwhelmingly jubilant. Many will say that the killing of al-Qaeda’s founder was justified. But was it legal? Responding to news of the killing, famed linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky suggested that “we might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic”. Commenting from a different viewpoint, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin argues that the legal complications of arresting bin Laden would have been immense, and would have perhaps signaled “the most complex and wrenching legal proceeding in American history”.  We could would add to this that the White House was probably concerned about a prolonged state of heightened security for American embassies and civilian or military installations around the world, which could have lasted for as long as bin Laden’s hypothetical trial continued —which could have been years. Read more of this post

NSA whistleblower prosecutions continue under Obama

Thomas Drake

Thomas Drake

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Legal observers were surprised late last week when a grand jury in Baltimore indicted a former senior official of the US National Security Agency (NSA) for leaking classified information to a local newspaper reporter. The indictment, which was publicized last Thursday, accuses Thomas A. Drake of exchanging hundreds of email messages with a reporter, in which he exposed aspects of the NSA’s alleged mismanagement and operational deficiencies. Court documents do not identify the reporter, or the news outlet for which she worked. But most observers have identified her as Siobhan Gorman, who now works for The Wall Street Journal. Between 2006 and 2007, while working for The Baltimore Sun, Gorman authored a series of articles on the NSA, exposing, among other things, severe mismanagement of outsourced signals collection programs, as well as the Agency’s trouble in securing enough electrical supply for its computational requirements. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #332

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Situation report on the al-Haramain wiretap case

NSA Headquarters

NSA HQ

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Max Fisher of The Atlantic Wire provides an excellent situation report on the recent decision by a US district court, which faulted the US government for unconstitutionally wiretapping a US-based Saudi charity. The charity, al-Haramain, was taken to court in September 2004 by the US government, which accused it  of having links to terrorist groups. But the charity has now successfully demonstrated that the National Security Agency (NSA) engaged in illegal spying against it, under the Bush administration’s STELLAR WIND warrantless spying program. Drawing from articles by a number of commentators, Fisher explains why the case took five years to conclude, pointing to the difficulty the plaintiffs had to prove that the NSA spied on the charity. Normally, this is close to impossible, as the NSA is not in the habit of disclosing information on its operations. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0286

  • More on CIA spies working for corporations. Author Eamon Javers provides more information about his new book, in which he examines the increasing phenomenon of CIA agents working for private corporations on the side.
  • Rio Tinto spy controversy thickens. Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto says it is “extremely worried” about four of its staff, who were arrested last July by Chinese authorities and have now been formally charged with espionage.
  • Court keeps White House spy emails secret. Two weeks ago, US President Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address that “it’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or Congress”. This does not appear to apply to telecommunication industry lobbyists, who campaigned in favor of facilitating warrantless communications interception through the National Security Agency’s STELLAR WIND program.

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Analysis: Landrieu-Gate is Scary, but it’s No Watergate

Stan Dai

Stan Dai

By J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The arrests by US Marshals of four self-described conservative activists, who were caught trying to tamper with the telephone lines of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’ New Orleans office, have caused outcry in liberal and silence in conservative blogs. Most political allies of the four young men have been scrambling to denounce them, and the few who haven’t, have tried to play off the case as an ill-conceived political prank that got out of hand. Considering that America’s political culture still reels from the effects of Watergate (1972-1974), and the far more serious COINTELPRO (1956-1971), it would be criminal neglect on behalf of the FBI to treat the Landrieu incident as a “prank”. At the same time, however, Landrieu-gate is no Watergate. Neither the target nor the operational tactics and institutional affiliations of the four men involved in the case resemble anything remotely akin to either Watergate or COINTELPRO. Keep reading →

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NSA bugging more widespread than thought, says ex-analyst

Wayne Madsen

Wayne Madsen

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A former NSA analyst and US Navy intelligence officer has alleged that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic spying program was more widespread than originally thought, and that it was authorized by the Bush Administration prior to 9/11. Wayne Madsen, who authors the Wayne Madsen Report, says the NSA consulted with US telecommunications service providers about aspects of its STELLAR WIND program in as early as February 27, 2001, several months prior to the events of 9/11. STELLAR WIND was a massive domestic surveillance program involving spying on US citizens. Under the guidance of the office of the US Attorney General, the NSA was systematically allowed to circumvent the standard authorization process under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, composed of 11 federal judges, and thus conduct what is known as warrantless wiretapping within the United States, which is illegal. Read more of this post