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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Transom Peepers 

What your national security state has successfully accomplished under Mr. Bush's stewardship:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added . . . .

Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated Monday by President Bush to become the director of the CIA, headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, Hayden would have overseen the agency's domestic call-tracking program. Hayden declined to comment about the program.

The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.

In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.
What your national security state has not yet managed to accomplish under Mr. Bush's stewardship:
Three years ago, a Connecticut-based technology company called Walker Digital developed an innovative system -- named US HomeGuard -- that promised to place thousands of the country's critical infrastructure sites under round-the-clock surveillance, economically and quickly. Walker offered the system to the government for $1. The company never planned to make a cent on HomeGuard commercially. It never even expected to recoup the several million dollars it spent on the effort. "We did that as good citizens," says Jay Walker, the company's chairman. "We just don't focus on the dollar amount."

Offered HomeGuard on a silver platter, the government did nothing. The system remains available but untested and unused. Many of those thousands of infrastructure sites remain wholly or partially unwatched . . . .

According to Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack, a new book by former Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, the United States has 66,000 chemical plants, 2,800 power plants, 1,800 federal reservoirs, 80,000 dams, 5,000 public airports -- the list goes on and on. In a recent speech, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the result of a successful attack on certain chemical plants "would be tremendous -- tremendous in terms of loss of life, tremendous in terms of property damage, and then also tremendous in terms of its impact on our national economy."

Hiring people to stand guard full-time over all but the most sensitive sites would be prohibitively costly and cumbersome. Walker's solution was what he calls distributed surveillance. HomeGuard posts webcams on the peripheries of no-go zones around critical sites. Cameras, of course, are old hat. Here is the innovation: Regular people, not high-priced security professionals, monitor the sites over the Internet. If a camera detects motion, it transmits a picture to several "spotters," ordinary Web users who earn $10 an hour for simply looking at photos online and answering this question: "Do you see a person or vehicle in this image?" A yes answer triggers a security response . . . .

DHS never took formal action on the plan. Informally, an official told Hofman that a trial would be too expensive. But DHS had never discussed costs with the company. The budget was flexible, and Walker was prepared to raise private funds. The department, however, never responded to the company's request to see if cost objections could be met . . . .

"As a general matter," [Ervin] says, "our nation's critical infrastructure is almost as unprotected as it was five years ago, after September 11." In December, the
9/11 Public Discourse Project, following up on the 9/11 commission's recommendations, concurred. It gave the government a grade of D on "critical infrastructure risks and vulnerabilities assessment." Chertoff is still pleading with Congress for authority to set security standards for chemical plants, which are just one piece of the problem.
UPDATE (via Zemblan patriots B.K. and J.D.): In case you were wondering, the details of the NSA's illegal wiretapping program are simply too sensitive to be shared with hoi polloi:
The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter . . . .

"We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," OPR counsel H. Marshall Jarrett wrote to [Rep. Maurice] Hinchey [D-NY]. Hinchey's office shared the letter with The Associated Press.

Jarrett wrote that beginning in January 2006, his office has made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. Those requests were denied Tuesday.

"Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation," wrote Jarrett.
The bumper sticker we'd gladly pay for: Subpoena Power in '06.

UPDATE II: Lest we forget . . . .
Gen. Michael Hayden refused to answer question about spying on political enemies at National Press Club. At a public appearance, Bush's pointman in the Office of National Intelligence was asked if the NSA was wiretapping Bush's political enemies. When Hayden dodged the question, the questioner repeated, "No, I asked, are you targeting us and people who politically oppose the Bush government, the Bush administration? Not a fishing net, but are you targeting specifically political opponents of the Bush administration?" Hayden looked at the questioner, and after a silence called on a different questioner. (Hayden National Press Club remarks, 1/23/06)

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