Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Code Name Mozzarella 

We are not quite sure why it occurred to us, but we remember being startled back in 1982, the year in which James Bamford's The Puzzle Palace was first published, to learn that every international phone call made from the United States was monitored by the NSA; that every international call containing any key word, from a long list of key words, was recorded and transcribed; and that each and every day of the year the NSA disposed of, on average, eighteen dump trucks' worth of shredded transcripts. (That, of course, was well before the widespead adoption of e-mail technology.)

Today, while Googling "Echelon PROMIS Carnivore Octopus Casolaro" (You know how to Google, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and burp), we stumbled across some updated figures. According to Thomas Schuler's 2003 article on David Kahn's magisterial work The Code Breakers . . .
The NSA generates about 40 metric tons of waste paper every day. The sheer quantity caused the NSA headaches for years. The material was compacted, packed, and shipped off to an incinerator--after the NSA sent the employees home for 24 hours so its own people could carry out the dirty work of disposing of covert cellulose. The agency wanted to ensure that security would be tight in case a single sliver of paper got loose with someone’s name on it.

However, the NSA was unable to find a trash incineration company that was consistently willing to turn its facility over to the NSA for a day, or that was interested in burning the NSA!s top secret by-products. Classified documents began to stack up at Fort Meade. Eventually, the NSA launched project “White Elephant”: building its own incinerator. When the facility was finally completed, NSA officials discovered to their horror that charred, still-legible slivers of paper were floating into the sky and fluttering to the ground below. Security guards were sent running around the compound, snatching up the tiny flakes like children catching fireflies.
You see the problem: how to dispose of all those thousands of reams of transcribed telephone conversations in a cost-effective fashion. Well, it gives us great pleasure to report that, according to a speech Mr. Bamford gave before the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference in 2002, the spirit of entrepreneurism is alive and well at Fort Meade:
Bamford claimed that the NSA has created a small side business out of shredding the millions of documents it generates every year. The NSA converts the paper into pulp and recycles it into pizza boxes inside its headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. Last year alone, sales of the covert pizza containers generated $58,000 for the agency, according to Bamford.
As our stouthearted colleague Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest explains, it takes an awful lot of transcripts to generate 58,000 dollars' worth of pizza boxes. The NSA would basically have to be spying on . . . all of us.

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