Thursday, August 09, 2007

So Deep Black 

In the course of trying to sort out Alberto Gonzales's frequently contradictory remarks about the President's warrentless wiretapping program, our assiduous colleague Lukery Land (formerly of Wot Is It Good 4; currently of Monosyllabic Fish) recalled a year-old interview with Russell Tice, in which the NSA whistleblower dropped a few tantalizing hints about the nature and capabilities of current surveillance technology. As Lukery explains, "Russ Tice tried to tell Congress about some of the NSA's illegal and unconstitutional spying programs and not a single person in Congress had sufficiently high clearance to hear what Tice had to say - not even the Chairs of the Senate or House Intelligence Committees":

REASON: Do you see a shift in signals intelligence toward more intensive computer filtering, so there's more and more information processed, but less seen by human beings?

Tice: I've thought about this for a while, and as I said, I can't tell you how things are done, but I can foresee it, especially with what we've seen now. We're finding out that NSA conducted surveillance on U.S. citizens. And FISA could have been used but wasn't, was sidestepped. No one even made the attempt to see if they had a problem they could have fixed through FISA.

That would lead one to ask the question: "Why did they omit the FISA court?"

I would think one reason that is possible is that perhaps a system already existed that you could do this with, and all you had to do is change the venue. And if that's the case, and this system was a broad brush system, a vacuum cleaner that just sucks things up, this huge systematic approach to monitoring these calls, processing them, and filtering them—then ultimately a machine does 98.8 percent of your work. What you come out with from a haystack is a shoebox full of straw. Once you have that, you have people that can look at it.

Now here's an interesting question: If this approach was used, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of communications were processed in that manner, and then if and when the truth ever came out, a lawyer—and I think lawyers are going to be arguing semantics in this case—the argument could be made, well, if a machine was doing the looking and the sucking in, it doesn't matter because that's not monitoring until a human looks at it.

REASON: You're referring to what James Risen calls "The Program," the NSA wiretaps that have been reported on?

Tice: No, I'm referring to what I need to tell Congress that no one knows yet, which is only tertiarily connected to what you know about now.

REASON: What aspect of that, within the parameters of what you're able to talk about, concerned you?

Tice: The lack of oversight, mainly—when a problem arose and I raised concerns, the total lack of concern that anyone could be held accountable for any illegality involved. And then these things are so deep black, the extremely sensitive programs that I was a specialist in, these things are so deep black that only a minute few people are cleared for these things. So even if you have a concern, it's things in many cases your own supervisor isn't cleared for. So you have literally nowhere to go . . . .

REASON: Are you at all sympathetic to claims that the New York Times' reporting on NSA surveillance may have harmed national security?

Tice: In my case, there's no way the programs I want to talk to Congress about should be public ever, unless maybe in 200 years they want to declassify them. You should never learn about it; no one at the Times should ever learn about these things. But that same mechanism that allows you to have a program like this at an extremely high, sensitive classification level could also be used to mask illegality, like spying on Americans. And spying on Americans is illegal unless you go to a FISA court . . . . As a signals intelligence officer, kids who go right out of college and work for the NSA, this is drilled into you, especially when you're young: You will not do this. This is number one of the NSA's Ten Commandments: You will not spy on Americans. Even after you've had all those introductory briefings when you're a new employee, for the rest of your career, at least twice a year they call you in for a briefing, and this is always covered. "You will not do this," they shake their fingers at you. "If you do this you can be thrown in jail." And all of a sudden you find out the people who've been shaking their fingers are doing what they're telling you is against the law and coming out with some cockeyed nonsense excuses for why everything's OK . . . . Fear rules the day right now. For the most part, people know, NSA employees know, that this is wrong, that this is illegal. In many cases they feel betrayed by their own leadership.

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