TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Hold the Phone: Spying on Your Calls

Hold the Phone: Spying on Your Calls

Mark Hosenball & Evan Thomas (
Wed, 17 May 2006 14:13:58 -0500

Big Brother knows whom you call. Is that legal, and will it help catch
the bad guys?

By Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas

May 22, 2006 issue - In the difficult days after 9/11, White House
officials quietly passed the word through Washington's alphabet soup
of intelligence agencies: tell us which weapons you need to stop
another attack. At the supersecretive NSA, the National Security
Agency (also known as No Such Agency), the request came back: give us
permission to collect information on people inside the United
States. The NSA had been struggling, without much success, to listen
in on terrorists who use cheap and easily available encrypted phones,
and officials eagerly drew up a wish list, according to a participant
in the discussions. This source, who declined to be identified
discussing sensitive matters, said NSA officials did not really expect
the White House to say yes to domestic spying. After scandals over
wiretapping erupt-ed in the 1970s, the code breakers and electronic
sleuths at the NSA had been essentially restricted to eavesdrop-ping
on conversations between foreigners abroad. American residents and
even most foreign visitors to the United States were off-limits to
"Big Noddy," as NSA insiders call their giant "Ear in the Sky"
surveillance capability.

But after 9/11, president George W. Bush wanted fast action. He
believed that most Americans thought their government should do
whatever was necessary to catch terrorists before they struck
again. Though the details remain highly classified, the "National
Security Presidential Directives" issued by Bush called for an all-out
war on terrorism, including, it is generally believed, expanded
electronic surveillance. Out went the old rules-a 1980 document called
"U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18," which sharply limited
domestic surveillance; in came a new, still dimly understood regimen
of domestic spying.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In times of war, open
societies have been willing to accept the need for secret spy
services. Americans now spend upwards of $40 billion a year on
intelligence. Given a hard choice between security and privacy, most
Americans would probably choose to sacrifice some of the latter to get
more of the former. The harder question is whether the techno wizards
at the NSA, overwhelmed by tidal waves of digital data, searching for
tiny poisonous fish in a giant sea, can provide true security from
another 9/11.

There can be no doubt that Bush correctly read the public mood in the
days and weeks following the 2001 attacks. And had the president sent
a bill up to Capitol Hill giving the NSA broad powers to wiretap and
eavesdrop inside the United States, in all likelihood, the lawmakers
would have shouted it through. But the president did not ask for
public support. Instead, like most chief executives charged with
running the modern national-security state, he chose the path of
secrecy. True, the administration's spymasters confidentially briefed
congressional leaders on the new eavesdropping program. But some of
the lawmakers now claim they were confused, or misled, or somehow did
not fully understand what the spooks were telling them. Perhaps the
legislators weren't fully informed. Or perhaps they didn't really want
to hear what they were told.

In any case, the story eventually, and inevitably, leaked. Last
December, The New York Times revealed that the NSA had eavesdropped on
thousands of phone calls between people in the United States and
foreign countries without first obtaining warrants. Then, last week,
USA Today reported that the NSA had amassed a vast database of
billions of calls inside the United States-not the content of the
calls themselves, but a record of when and to which phone numbers the
calls were made and for how long. (The government did not ask the
phone companies for names and addresses, but the simplest Internet
search of a phone number can divulge that information.) The revelation
was another blow to Bush, whose approval rating in the new NEWSWEEK
Poll dipped to 35 percent, his record low in the survey, and it may
slow the administration's plan to find a CIA director who can restore
morale at the beleaguered intelligence agency. The brewing scandal is
likely to entangle the government and the phone companies that helped
in a legal morass.

Administration officials have always insisted that any eavesdropping
or "data collection" had been narrowly focused on Al Qaeda terror
suspects. It is hard to determine if the NSA goes on fishing
expeditions. A senior administration of-ficial, who declined to be
identified discussing classified matters, acknowledged to NEWSWEEK
that the NSA had crunched through vast databases to help identify
suspects who may have then been subjected to electronic eavesdropping,
either without a warrant or under court order. This official claimed
that the NSA program had helped gather evidence that had foiled
terrorist operations, though the official would not be more
specific. If the program "leads to one disruption of another 9/11,
then it would be worth it," said the official. But other
administration officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK questioned whether
the fruits of the NSA program-which they doubted, though not publicly
at the risk of losing their jobs-have been worth the cost to
privacy. And many Americans naturally wondered whether Big Brother was
watching or listening in ways that are still unknown. There are hints,
for instance, that the government has been fishing the Internet as
well as the phone lines.

In San Francisco, a privacy group called the Electronic Frontier
Foundation has filed a lawsuit based in part on the testimony of Mark
Klein, an AT&T technician for 22 years who claims he witnessed the
construction of a "secret room" for the NSA at AT&T's San Francisco
headquarters in early 2003. Later that year, Klein says, he discovered
that cables from the secret room were tapping into massive volumes of
Internet communication. Klein says he discovered similar operations in
other cities on the West Coast, and now concludes that the NSA had
created the capability of "vacuum-cleaner surveillance" of all data
crossing the Internet. AT&T says it has always obeyed the law and
worked to safeguard the privacy of its customers. The federal
government has mostly remained mum, though at a Dec. 19 White House
briefing, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales somewhat cryptically
referred to "many operational aspects" of the eavesdropping program
"that have still not been disclosed." After the USA Today story,
President Bush told reporters, "We are not trolling through the
personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."

Whether that is strictly true will likely be on the agenda this week
as lawmakers on the Senate intelligence committee grill Air Force
Gen. Michael Hayden, Bush's choice to take over the troubled
CIA. Hayden ran the NSA before and after 9/11, when the agency was
expanding its surveillance programs. "I have substantial questions
about his credibility," Senate intelligence committee member Ron
Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, told NEWSWEEK. He points to Hayden's
public statements that the NSA monitored only international
calls. "There was never any mention of establishing a domestic
database," says Wyden.

Republicans defending Hayden's nomination can counter with some early
polls showing that most Americans support expanded electronic
surveillance to catch terrorists, even if it intrudes on their
privacy. (Much depends on the wording of a poll question, of course,
and later polls showed more skepticism. The NEWSWEEK survey found 53
percent agreed with the statement that NSA data collection "goes too
far in invading people's privacy," while only 41 percent agreed that
the collection program is "a necessary tool to combat terrorism.")
Most legal experts seemed to agree that the government could collect a
huge database of phone records without violating the Constitution's
ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." Still, the phone
companies that cooperated with the NSA-AT&T, Verizon and
BellSouth-will be h auled into court, accused by their customers of
violating the arcane and murky restrictions of various federal
communications laws. All of them have protested that they were
complying with the law, though it has been noted that they were paid
for their cooperation, and lawyers suing the phone companies will
undoubtedly want to know if they were pressured by threats to withhold
valuable federal contracts. One much smaller phone company-Qwest,
based in the Rocky Mountain states-refused to turn over its call
records, arguing that the NSA never satisfied the company's legal
doubts about the agency's request.

Americans are not naive about the need to snoop at home and
overseas. In 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down a secret
code-breaking operation called the Black Chamber by saying, "Gentlemen
do not read each other's mail." But America's enemies are apt to play
dirty, and during World War II and the cold war, the federal
government decided, in effect, to play dirty, too-to steal secrets and
eavesdrop, at home as well as abroad.

Washington spun a huge web of intelligence agencies with acronyms
familiar (like CIA and FBI) and obscure (like NRO-for National
Reconnaissance Office-to operate spy satellites). The attitude toward
secret or "black" operations was, at first, rather "stiff upper lip"
and British. Policymakers did not want to know too much about what the
spooks were up to. Presidents were protected by the doctrine of
plausible deniability. They were supposed to be able to say,
plausibly, that they really didn't know how that secret was stolen-or
that a journalist's phone was tapped or that a foreign government was
overthrown. If caught, American spymasters were supposed to fall on
their swords and take responsibility.

Of course, blametaking didn't quite work so stoically in
practice. During the Watergate scandal, it emerged that the Feds had
been carrying on a program of domestic spying, tapping phones and
opening the mail of real and imagined enemies of the state. At the
1975 Church Committee hearings, intelligence officials squirmed and
pointed fingers. New laws were enacted, including the 1978 Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the Feds to get a
warrant from a secret court before eavesdropping on foreign calls in
and out of the United States.

The NSA was banned from any domestic espionage. At those 1975
hearings, Sen. Frank Church, the chairman of the committee appointed
to investigate intelligence abuses, made a statement that today seems
ominous and possibly prescient. The Idaho senator said he was most
worried about the NSA. The secret agency's capabilities were so great
they "could be turned around on the American people, and no American
would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor
everything, telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't
matter. There would be no place to hide."

The NSA does have vast capabilities. One senior U.S. intelligence
official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the
subject, told NEWSWEEK that the heat generated by the NSA's secret
supercomputers has been so great that officials have been talking
about carting in snow and ice to mask the machines from the prying
sensors of foreign spy satellites.

But increasingly, there has been talk of the agency's "going deaf."
The NSA had its best luck monitoring Soviet lines of communication-for
example, a microwave transmission from Moscow to a missile base in
Siberia. But the new enemy is more shadowy and elusive. In 2002,
General Hayden told NEWSWEEK, "We've gone from chasing the
telecommunications structure of a slow-moving, technologically
inferior, resource-poor nation-state-and we could do that pretty
well-to chasing a communications structure in which an Al Qaeda member
can go into a storefront in Istanbul and buy for $100 a communications
device that is absolutely cutting edge, and for which he has had to
make no investment for development."

According to most accounts, the NSA remains behind the
telecommunications curve. A December 2002 report by the Senate
intelligence committee noted that only a "tiny fraction" of the NSA's
650 million daily intercepts worldwide "are actually ever reviewed by
humans, and much of what is collected gets lost in the deluge of
data." Hayden told NEWSEEK that year that the NSA had been slow to
catch up to new technology, and that he was obsessed with turning the
enemy's "beeps and squeaks into something intelligible."

One of Hayden's most ambitious initiatives was called Trailblazer. It
was a program aimed at helping the NSA make sense of its many
databases-to put them to use. By more efficiently locating and
retrieving messages, Trailblazer could help the NSA "data-mine," to
find patterns in the huge volume of electronic traffic that might help
lead sleuths to a terror suspect. Instead, the program has produced
nearly a billion dollars' worth of junk hardware and software. "It's a
complete and abject failure," says Robert D. Steele, a CIA veteran who
is familiar with the program. Adds Ed Giorgio, who was the chief code
breaker for the NSA for 30 years: "Everybody's eyes rolled when you
mentioned Trailblazer."

What went wrong? The NSA apparently tried a clunky top-down approach,
trying to satisfy too many requirements with one grand solution,
rather than taking a more Silicon Valley-like tack of letting small
entrepreneurs compete for ideas. John Arquilla of the Naval
Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif., a renowned "network"
intelligence expert, says: "The real problem Big Brother is having is
he's not making enough use of the Little Brothers"-the corporations
that have become expert at manipulating databases for commercial use.

"Data mining" has been a boon to credit-card companies that can match
customers and products. It has also helped the Feds track drug dealers
who constantly buy and throw away cell phones (the technology can
monitor frequent phone-number changes). Identifying and tracking
terrorists may be a taller order. For one thing, terrorists have
learned not to even use phones. A computer disk or message between,
say, Osama bin Laden and Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi
is hand-delivered. Some terrorists have learned to leave messages
hidden in Web sites. Others are given passwords to go on the Web sites
and find the messages. Since that process involves no electronic
communication-no e-mail or phone call-the NSA is kept in the dark.

Effective data mining might have averted 9/11, notes Philip Bobbitt,
who served as a National Security staffer in the Clinton
administration. On Sept. 10, 2001, the NSA, monitoring pay phones in
Qaeda-controlled Afghanistan, intercepted two messages, "The match
begins tomorrow" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." No one knew what to make
of these messages, which in any event weren't translated until
Sept. 12. But the CIA and FBI had the identities of two of the
hijackers, who had been linked to earlier Qaeda plotting, in the
agencies' computers. "Had we at the time cross-referenced credit-card
accounts, frequent-flier programs and a cell- phone number shared by
those two men, data mining might easily have picked up on the 17 other
men linked to them and flying on the same day and at the same time on
four flights," Bobbitt recently wrote in The New York Times.

There are doubts within the upper levels of the U.S. government that
the NSA, four-and-a-half years after 9/11, is any better equipped and
run to piece together the next "Tomorrow is zero hour"
intercept. NEWSWEEK has learned that some top government lawyers were
troubled by the NSA data collection and search program-not on legal
grounds so much, but because they doubted its efficacy. A senior
administration official who was involved in legally vetting the NSA
program but declined to be identified discussing sensitive matters
says that a crude cost-benefit analysis left him uneasy. The NSA
program ran a risk of intruding on the privacy of Americans. There are
always "false positives." National Journal's Shane Harris conjured up
the example of a book agent who represents a journalist who once
interviewed Osama bin Laden. A faulty pattern analysis could make him
a terror suspect. To justify the risk of dragging such innocents into
government investigations, there needs to be evidence showing a high
probability of return on the investment-the prospect of actually
catching a terrorist.

So far, the best catch the Feds have offered up is a truckdriver named
Iyman Faris, who conceived a rather farfetched plot to cut down the
Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. (Faris was apparently identified by
a captured Qaeda leader; it's not clear the NSA played any role.) Of
course, intelligence services do not always brag about their
successes, and one U.S. official privy to the intelligence tells
NEWSWEEK that another attack on an urban area in the United States was
averted as well. The official would not discuss the plot for fear of
revealing NSA listening methods.

There has been at least some debate inside the administration over how
much license to give the NSA. In the spring of 2004, senior Justice
Department lawyers objected to warrantless eavesdropping. For several
months, until new rules to safeguard privacy were adopted, the program
was suspended. It is not clear whether the NSA's data-collection
program was also put on hold or altered in some way.

The administration is not eager to air its internal debates. At the
Justice Department, an internal watchdog, the Office of Professional
Responsibility, began an investigation into whether DOJ lawyers had
behaved unethically by interpreting the law too aggressively-by giving
a legal green light to coercive interrogations and warrantless
eavesdropping. But the OPR lawyers had to drop their investigation
last week when the administration refused to give them the necessary
security clearances.

Catching Al Qaeda or some shadowy terrorist offshoot before it strikes
again will take all the tools of spy tradecraft-old-fashioned human
intelligence (HUMINT) as well as signals intelligence (SIGINT) like
electronic eavesdropping. It is frustrating to think how close the CIA
and FBI came to stopping 9/11. After Al Qaeda bombed the American
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, local police managed to catch
one of the would-be bombers who had decided not to commit suicide in
the blast. The conspirator was turned over to American intelligence
officials, who persuaded the man to give up the phone number of a
Qaeda safe house in Yemen. The NSA began listening in on the phone
line of the safe house. American agents were tipped to a Qaeda terror
summit in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. Two of the 9/11
hijackers-Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar-were at that summit.
Somehow, the CIA failed to hand over the identities of these two
terrorists to the FBI in time for the slow-moving bureau to track them
before they flew into buildings on 9/11.

That was a human error, but it was caused in part by the culture of
secrecy that permeates the national-security state. The CIA and FBI
are renowned for their turf wars and unwillingness to share
secrets. It's hoped that intelligence reform and the shame of failure
have prodded the intelligence agencies to share a little more. As the
late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, during the cold war
excessive secrecy did more to hurt national security than to help
it. In an overly secretive world, assumptions go untested and rigorous
thinking is stifled. The CIA, for instance, failed to predict the
collapse of the Soviet Union, in part because agency analysts refused
to reach out to outside economists and experts.

It is true, as the old World War II saying goes, that "loose lips sink
ships." But by refusing to tolerate an open discussion of new rules
post-9/11, the Bush team lost a chance to gain public support for the
necessary trade-off between security and privacy. Figuring out how to
track and find Internet-savvy terrorists is a daunting
task. Government officials-even the superspooks of the NSA-need all
the help they can get.

With Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, Daniel Klaidman, Richard Wolffe, Holly
Bailey and John Barry

Copyright 2006
Copyright 2006 Newsweek


NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at . Hundreds of new
articles daily. And, discuss this and other topics in our forum at (or)

Post Followup Article Use your browser's quoting feature to quote article into reply
Go to Next message: David Kravets: "Judge Seals Documents in NSA Spying Case"
Go to Previous message: Anthony Bellanga: "Re: Dialing 311? Hold That Call!"
TELECOM Digest: Home Page