by Loring Wirbel
For at least a month following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency, the vast majority of members of Congress cared less about an open discussion of the role of technical intelligence agencies, than about putting more leakers in jail. Ironically, Sen. Mark Udall, known locally as an occasional military hawk, was one of only two senators (joined by Sen. Ron Wyden) who raised fundamental questions about NSA’s rights to intercept all communications. Everyone from Rep. Pete King on the right to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Al Franken on the left, were ready to defend the NSA in whatever it chose to do.
Luckily, some members of Congress could sense a shift in the winds by mid-summer, and many supported a House hearing on July 18 to probe the NSA and the secret federal court that justifies its actions, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, or FISA Court. But this shift did not come easily for some. In the same way that far too many members of Congress justified the nuclear priesthood during the nuclear arms race, too many are willing to place the NSA and its sister space-intelligence agency, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), behind a wall of secrecy. The director of the NSA, Keith Alexander, now is in charge of a new military arm, the Cyber Command, which is conducting computer warfare behind that same wall of secrecy. It is up to citizens to demand transparency and accountability from our secret government.
In the Cold War days prior to Sept. 11, NSA and NRO were seen as friends to arms control, because they allowed global weapons infrastructures to be verified. After Sept. 11, the same agencies were accepted as important tools to use in the global War on Terror. In reality, the nation’s intelligence agencies, as well as commands like Cyber Command and Space Command, shifted their missions in the 20 years following the end of the Cold War, to become first-strike warfighting machines employed primarily against small developing nations. Many installations, including several in Colorado, operated under the auspices of Strategic Command in Omaha. How did we get to the point of having such asymmetric tools of warfare accepted by the public at large?
Snowden Told Us What We Already Knew
Virtually from the very first stories that Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the UK Guardian and the Washington Post on June 9, skeptics were insisting that Snowden was not revealing anything we did not already know – even though the media rarely talked about the NSA (odd, then, that Obama wanted to prosecute him within a matter of days under the Espionage Act). In a sense, the scoffers were right. Snowden only provided solid documentation for things that intelligence experts always claimed were true about the NSA. But what was maddening in the skeptics’ jaded approach to Snowden is the way the entire Washington establishment allowed the intelligence cabal, the drone cabal, the cyber cabal, to expand their missions and their snubbing of the law without any oversight from Congress or the courts.
It may be useful, then, to go through a brief history on how the intelligence community changed over recent decades. NSA was established by executive order in 1952, with a mission to intercept the military and diplomatic communications of our adversaries (primarily USSR and China), and attempt to break their codes. NSA’s main tools were ground-based antenna fields, along with special airplane and ship listening posts. NSA gave the five Anglo-Saxon nations of the UKUSA Treaty special access to intelligence that other NATO nations did not get, though it demanded smaller nations serve as host to listening posts. In most cases the parliaments or legislatures of these host nations were unaware of the treaties – these were classified, private treaties signed between the White House and a prime minister or president. Yet even in the 1950s, NSA also was setting up listening posts in domestic locations like Skaggs Island, Calif; Two Rock Ranch, Calif; and Winter Harbor, Maine.
A second high-tech intelligence agency, the NRO, was created in 1960 to manage the nation’s spy satellites. Within ten years, it was outspending the NSA, and is now the nation’s largest intelligence agency by budget (NRO is now around $16 billion; NSA, around $12 billion). During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, NSA ground stations often were the target of guerillas, so NSA sought the help of NRO in sending its listening stations into space. By the mid-1980s, space was the pioneering environment for joint NSA/NRO missions.
During the raft of Congressional hearings in the late 1970s involving the CIA, the NSA took some heat as well, and revealed a program called Shamrock where it pressured companies like ITT and Western Union into supplying NSA with copies of all international telegrams. As part of the process of reform, Congress set up the secret FISA court to oversee the NSA. But as The New York Times indicated in a July 7, 2013 front-page story, the FISA Court has grown over the past 35 years to become a law unto itself, usually rubber-stamping all NSA activity.
It is important to note that the NSA went into space in the 1980s. Space satellites do not easily turn off their antennas as an orbit passes over the U.S. Therefore, the listening satellites work best when collecting all communications on the planet. During this same period of time, presidents from Reagan to Clinton asked the NSA to increase its targets to include commercial and civilian communications. When the FISA Court set rather loose limits on the NSA in the two decades following the court’s founding, it was not telling NSA what it could collect. The agency already was collecting all electronic communications on the planet. The FISA Court was telling the NSA what it could acknowledge collecting when it shared information with other agencies.
Therefore, the NSA that gained a lot of notoriety during the Echelon scandal (U.S. accused of collecting communications for industrial espionage) of the Clinton administration already was collecting the breadth of information Snowden warned about 20 years later. This was not a product of a post-Sept. 11 world. Coloradans should take careful note that one of the key space-downlink bases for NSA is at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, east of Denver.
What changed after the fall of the Twin Towers was the U.S. Patriot Act; the expansion of Strategic Command to include cyber-war, global strike, and indirect oversight of NSA; and the creation of a dedicated Northern Command (in Colorado Springs) and a Department of Homeland Security to make domestic surveillance appear more mundane. When the FISA Court showed a slight bit of reluctance in rubber-stamping new NSA plans in 2002, President Bush created something called “FISA Bypass” in which the agency could use special high-tech tools without seeking the approval of the court.
For example, NSA recruited the nation’s leading telephone companies to install special equipment in their switching centers in order to deeply probe Internet packets running across their networks, and to copy the packets and send them across fiber optic cables to the NSA. During the insider-trading trial of former Qwest Communications CEO Joseph Nacchio in 2007, he claimed he was being set up by NSA because Qwest was the only company that refused to play ball with the NSA. This sounded far-fetched until Snowden’s revelations in 2013 showed how much the NSA was willing to muscle private industry. Snowden revealed a newer program called Prism, where NSA worked with the owners of large data centers such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to make sure all information in Internet data centers was shared with NSA. Some CEOs of these companies claim they never heard of Prism. But it is extremely likely that NSA worked only with lower-level information tech specialists in those companies, leaving the CEOs in the dark. It’s the way NSA typically does business.
This is also the way NSA Director Keith Alexander will be running Cyber Command, with the help of private industry. In a cover article in the July WIRED magazine, intelligence expert James Bamford wrote a detailed report on Cyber Command, revealing that even though NSA itself is subject to budget-sequestering cuts, the Cyber Command was designed to be immune from any cutbacks. A $3.2 billion Cyber Command building at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., called “Site M,” is under construction, and will be almost as big as NSA headquarters itself. By Phase III of construction, Site M will expand to 5.8 million square feet.
In his Wired story, Bamford emphasized the number of huge private corporations building Cyber Centers near NSA headquarters – Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics, and SAIC were among the many planning multi-billion-dollar centers for computer attack and defense. More unnerving, Bamford said, were little startups like Endgame Systems. Endgame’s plans for attacking other nation’s computers seemed illegal under either U.S. or international law. Bamford got an NSA insider to say the agencies all recognize how shadowy this kind of work is, which is why it is best to conduct it in the offices of private corporations.
This is the real story behind NSA, NRO, and Cyber Command. As intelligence author Glenn Greenwald said, it is the mundane acceptance of vast levels of criminal behavior which is more upsetting, rather than any particular monster antenna fielded by NSA, or any computer virus created by Cyber Command. In both houses of Congress, the cheerleaders for technical intelligence vastly outnumber the critics demanding open government. And the federal courts are terrified of exercising any authority over the FISA Court, which has become a law unto itself.
Given the aggressive war-fighting plans fielded in recent years by many Pentagon component commands, why in the world would anyone expect benign behavior from Cyber Command or the technical intelligence agencies? The agencies benefit from a deliberate deafness practiced by everyone in Washington that allegedly has oversight authority. This includes the White House, where Obama has been a key instigator of taking away the passport of Edward Snowden and demanding his prosecution. Obama also fully supports the efforts by Attorney General Eric Holder to charge eight journalists under the Espionage Act.
The probe into leaks by government employees reached new levels of absurdity when Fox and McClatchy news services revealed the Pentagon’s Insider Threat program, instituted since the WikiLeaks affair to look for leaks within the national-security state itself. In late June, stories leaked that the Justice Department was probing Gen. James Cartwright, the former head of Strategic Command. Cartwright is suspected of giving New York Times reporter David Sanger information on Olympic Games, the vast computer-warfare infrastructure that NSA and Cyber Command jointly run with Israel’s secretive Unit 8200.
So now the national security state has begun to eat its own children – a situation that would be comical, if it weren’t so dangerous and pathetic. But we dare not assume that this means the state is near collapse. Only the constant protests in support of Bradley Manning during his trial at NSA headquarters, and the protests conducted in many American cities July 4 against the NSA, can help rip off the benign masks of these very dangerous agencies.
Loring Wirbel is a PPJPC boardmember and Co-Chair of the Colorado Springs chapter of the ACLU. He has been involved in intelligence analysis and civil liberties issues for more than 30 years.