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Bush's 'Big Brother' Blunder

By Robert Parry
May 13, 2006

George W. Bush’s warrantless phone data collection may not only violate the U.S. Constitution but expend so much money and manpower that America is made less safe – by diverting resources away from more practical steps, like inspecting cargo and hiring translators.

Yet, because the operation is wrapped in layers and layers of secrecy – based on the dubious argument that al-Qaeda might not realize it’s being spied on – the public doesn’t know how much the project costs, who’s getting contracts and whether it does any good.

So far, however, what administration officials and computer experts have been willing to describe shouldn’t give Americans much confidence that their trade-off of Fourth Amendment freedoms for a little extra safety is a particularly good deal.

The project’s designers say the National Security Agency’s electronic warehousing of trillions of phone records from calls made by some 200 million Americans is intended to seek out “patterns” from conversations involving alleged terrorists and then to apply the digital outline to the stockpiled records.

That search, presumably, then spits out the phone numbers of other callers in the United States who fit into the “patterns.” These computer-generated tips then go to the FBI, which may question the suspects or use other investigative strategies.

There are, however, logical flaws to this “Big Brother” computer scheme, especially the idea that the project is likely to discern many usable “patterns” of phone calls that if applied to the population would detect much suspicious activity.

The 9/11 hijackers, for instance, made very few substantive calls about their plot, recognizing the risk of electronic surveillance and preferring face-to-face meetings as a way to avoid detection, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

Most of the calls cited by the report relate to personal matters, such as contacting friends or searching for housing. For instance, Flight 93 hijacker Ziad “Jarrah made hundreds of phone calls to [his girlfriend] and communicated frequently by e-mail,” the report said.

On Jan. 20, 2001, Flight 173 hijacker Marwan al “Shehhi telephoned [his family in the United Arab Emirates] and said he was still living and studying in Hamburg,” Germany, the report said. The cell-phone records of 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta showed him calling about lodging in Florida on April 6, 9, 10 and 11, 2001.

Meaningful communications about the 9/11 plot almost always occurred in direct meetings between participants, often in foreign countries. According to the 9/11 report, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden passed on his final instructions to Atta through intermediary Ramzi Banalshibh in Spain.

Little Advantage

So, even with the most expensive computers, it’s hard to see how a “social-network analysis” would likely lead to revealing a terrorist plot, unless the analysis was aided by effective human intelligence. In other words, old-fashioned intelligence-gathering, not new-fangled gimmicks, still would be the key to stopping terrorism.

That seems to be the conclusion, too, of a Washington Post source who helped develop the technology.

“Let’s say lots [of data] comes in and we don’t see anything interesting,” the source said. “Tomorrow we find out someone is communicating with a known terrorist. When you go back and look at the past data, there may be information that you missed. A pattern that was meaningless suddenly makes sense.”

That information would then guide the NSA in selecting which telephones in the United States to bug, the Post reported. [Washington Post, May 12, 2006]

But that example could be handled almost as easily while complying with constitutional requirements and getting a warrant. The case also presumes that there was a break in the investigation elsewhere that identified one of the contacts as a terrorist.

Once there is “probable cause” of terrorist activity, a secret warrant could be obtained from a special court under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – or a wiretap could be started 72 hours before the request is made. The terrorist’s contacts then could be traced lawfully.

According to other published accounts, Bush’s warrantless surveillance operation also has had negative consequences, sending FBI investigators off on too many wild goose chases. The warrantless wiretapping generated thousands of tips each month, the New York Times reported..

“But virtually all of [the tips], current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans,” the Times wrote. “FBI officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. … Some FBI officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans’ privacy.” [NYT, Jan. 17, 2006]

Perhaps the best that can be said for storing trillions of American phone records – as disclosed in a May 11 article by USA Today – is that the NSA could move a bit faster in checking out leads that might arise from identifying a terrorist.

The FISA law allows the government to start immediate wiretaps, but the NSA would probably save some time in not having to get the data from the phone companies, since it would already be stored.

To get that slight advantage in speed, however, large sums of money is spent, funds that might be better used for training counter-terrorism agents, hiring more translators and inspecting more than five percent of the cargo containers entering U.S. ports.

‘Big Brother’

An even more troubling trade-off is the possibility that Bush or some future President could exploit the stockpiled data for political ends.

The Founders enacted the Fourth Amendment because they considered freedom from unreasonable search and seizure an “unalienable” right of all citizens. The principle has been largely upheld over more than two centuries of American constitutional history, including moments of danger arguably far more extreme than what is presented today by a small band of al-Qaeda terrorists.

But after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush quickly assembled a system of secrecy and snooping that may have been unprecedented in U.S. history. While some of Bush’s supporters cite prior suspensions of constitutional rights during the Civil War and World War II, those eras lacked today’s technology to pry into the most personal details of the lives of Americans.

Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, President Richard Nixon had relatively crude means for invading the privacy of Americans. Bugs were placed on phones; agents were infiltrated into political organizations; and burglars were sent into homes and offices searching for embarrassing or incriminating information.

By contrast, today’s modern technology would let the government collect and analyze trillions of bytes of data from transactions and communications. Indeed, in 2002, the Bush administration did explore the creation of a system for capturing the electronic footprint of just about everybody as they move through everyday life.

The concept, called Total Information Awareness, would have pulled together data on virtually every action that is connected to a computer: books borrowed from a library, fertilizer bought at a farm-supply outlet, movies rented at a video store, prescriptions filled at a pharmacy, sites visited on the Internet, tickets reserved for travel, borders crossed, rooms rented at a motel, and hundreds of other examples.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s top research and development arm, commissioned a comprehensive plan for electronic spying that would track everyone in the world who is part of the modern economy.

“Transactional data” would be gleaned from electronic data on every kind of activity – “financial, education, travel, medical, veterinary, country entry, place/event entry, transportation, housing, critical resources, government, communications,” according to DARPA’s Information Awareness Office.

The program would then cross-reference this data with the “biometric signatures of humans,” data collected on individuals’ faces, fingerprints, gaits and irises. The project sought to achieve what it called “total information awareness” as a way to fight the War on Terror.

The Information Awareness Office even boasted a logo that looked like some kind of clip art from George Orwell’s 1984. The logo showed the Masonic symbol of an all-seeing eye atop a pyramid peering over the globe, with the slogan, “scientia est potentia,” Latin for “knowledge is power.”

Heading the office was Ronald Reagan’s former national security adviser, John Poindexter, who had been a leading figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. Poindexter was convicted of five felonies in 1990, but his case later was overturned by a conservative-dominated three-judge appeals court panel.

After the Information Awareness Office came under public scrutiny in 2002, Poindexter resigned and the project was supposedly shut down. What’s now clear, however, is that elements of “total information awareness” survived in other forms.

Indeed, given the disclosures about the NSA collecting the phone records of some 200 million Americans, a logical extension for the Bush administration would be to factor in more of Poindexter’s ideas.

The argument could be made that if phone records were merged with credit card purchases and other electronic data, the chances of locating a terrorist actually might be increased. For Americans who put their personal safety over the nation’s “unalienable rights,” that might be trade-off they would find acceptable.

But for Americans who believe that fear should never be allowed to trump liberty, a voluntary surrender of the freedoms that have defined the United States – in exchange for some questionable assurances of a little more safety – would be unthinkable.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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