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Libby's Stew: Holy Sh*t Surveillance!

Joseph Kishore in “Obama administration collecting phone records of tens of millions of Americans”

The Obama administration is engaged in a secret and illegal dragnet to accumulate detailed phone records of tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of US residents in a program organized by the National Security Agency (NSA).

On Wednesday, the British Guardian newspaper published a secret court order, issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, instructing a branch of the telecommunications giant Verizon to turn over, on an ongoing and daily basis, all “metadata” relating to the calls of all of its customers. Verizon has some 121 million customers, and the branch specifically targeted—Verizon Business Services—has 10 million lines.

The metadata of phone calls includes the phone numbers of the caller and the recipient, location data (such as the nearest cell phone tower or GPS data), and the time and duration of the call. This information would allow the government to construct a detailed picture of the social, professional and political connections and gain insight into the daily activities of everyone whose phone number was covered by the order.


The official rationale—apparently developed in secret legal memoranda prepared by the Obama administration—is that the program is authorized under the “business records” section of the Patriot Act. That act, signed into law less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, gives the government, with a rubber stamp from secret courts operating within the framework of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA), the power to require companies, libraries and other entities to turn over any “tangible things” (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) required “for an investigation to protect against international terrorism.”

The argument of the Obama administration is essentially that all telephone data is potentially relevant to investigations of “international terrorism” and should be seized.

There is no doubt that many more companies besides Verizon are involved. In 2012 alone, there were 212 “business records” requests to FISA courts, though the content of these requests is not known.


The accumulation of a vast database of phone records is only part of a systematic drive to gather as much information as possible on everyone, US citizens and non-citizens alike. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine US Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to trace a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

According to the Post, the companies involved in handing over information include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

It must be assumed that the government has access to every electronic Internet and phone communication, including the actual content of calls, which are not included in the “metadata.” The Guardian cited Russell Tice, a retired NSA intelligence analyst turned whistleblower, as saying, “What is going on is much larger and more systemic than anything anyone has ever suspected or imagined.”

Tice said he believes the NSA now has the ability to record the content of calls. “I figured it would probably be about 2015” before the agency had the capacity “to collect all digital communications word for word. But I think I’m wrong. I think they have it right now.”

All of this is being carried out in flagrant violation of constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures (the Fourth Amendment). The fact that these programs have been implemented in secret, behind the backs of the American people, is itself evidence that those responsible are well aware that they are illegal and massively unpopular.


Norman Solomon in “An Open Letter to Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee”

Dear Senator Feinstein:

On Thursday, when you responded to news about massive ongoing surveillance of phone records of people in the United States, you slipped past the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you seem to be in the habit of treating the Bill of Rights as merely advisory.

The Constitution doesn’t get any better than this: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The greatness of the Fourth Amendment explains why so many Americans took it to heart in civics class, and why so many of us treasure it today. But along with other high-ranking members of Congress and the president of the United States, you have continued to chip away at this sacred bedrock of civil liberties.

As The Guardian reported the night before your sudden news conference, the leaked secret court order “shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk -- regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

One of the most chilling parts of that just-revealed Surveillance Court order can be found at the bottom of the first page, where it says “Declassify on: 12 April 2038.”

Apparently you thought -- or at least hoped -- that we, the people of the United States, wouldn’t find out for 25 years. And the fact that we learned about this extreme violation of our rights in 2013 instead of 2038 seems to bother you a lot.

Rather than call for protection of the Fourth Amendment, you want authorities to catch and punish whoever leaked this secret order. You seem to fear that people can actually discover what their own government is doing to them with vast surveillance.


Let’s be candid about the most clear and present danger to our country’s democratic values. The poisonous danger is spewing from arrogance of power in the highest places. The antidotes depend on transparency of sunlight that only whistleblowers, a free press and an engaged citizenry can bring.


Obviously, you like it that way, and so do most other members of the Senate and House. And so does the president. You’re all playing abhorrent roles, maintaining a destructive siege of precious civil liberties. While building a surveillance state, you are patting citizens on the head and telling them not to worry.


Senator Feinstein, your energetic contempt for the Bill of Rights is serving a bipartisan power structure that threatens to crush our democratic possibilities.

A huge number of people in California and around the country will oppose your efforts for the surveillance state at every turn.


Norman Solomon


Glenn Greenwald and Amy Goodman in “A Massive Surveillance State": Glenn Greenwald Exposes Covert NSA Program Collecting Calls, Emails”

GREENWALD: "They want to make sure that every single time human beings interact with one another … that they can watch it, and they can store it, and they can access it at any time."


AMY GOODMAN: We begin with news that the National Security Agency has obtained access to the central servers of nine major Internet companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook. The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed the top secret program on Thursday, codenamed PRISM, after they obtained several slides from a 41-page training presentation for senior intelligence analysts. It explains how PRISM allows them to access emails, documents, audio and video chats, photographs, documents and connection logs that allow them to track a person or trace their connections to others..


According to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, the scope of the NSA phone monitoring includes customers of all three major phone networks—Verizon, AT&T and Sprint—as well as records from Internet service providers and purchase information from credit card providers. Glenn Greenwald is also author of With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. He’s joining us now via Democracy—video stream.

GLENN GREENWALD: There are top-secret NSA documents that very excitingly describe—excitedly describe, boast about even, how they have created this new program called the PRISM program that actually has been in existence since 2007, that enables them direct access into the servers of all of the major Internet companies which people around the world, hundreds of millions, use to communicate with one another. You mentioned all of those—all those names. And what makes it so extraordinary is that in 2008 the Congress enacted a new law that essentially said that except for conversations involving American citizens talking to one another on U.S. soil, the NSA no longer needs a warrant to grab, eavesdrop on, intercept whatever communications they want.

And at the time, when those of us who said that the NSA would be able to obtain whatever they want and abuse that power, the argument was made, "Oh, no, don’t worry. There’s a great check on this. They have to go to the phone companies and go to the Internet companies and ask for whatever it is they want. And that will be a check." And what this program allows is for them, either because the companies have given over access to their servers, as the NSA claims, or apparently the NSA has simply seized it, as the companies now claim—the NSA is able to go in—anyone at a monitor in an NSA facility can go in at any time and either read messages that are stored in Facebook or in real time surveil conversations and chats that take place on Skype and Gmail and all other forms of communication. It’s an incredibly invasive system of surveillance worldwide that has zero checks of any kind.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, there is a chart prepared by the NSA in the top-secret document you obtained that shows the breadth of the data it’s able to obtain—email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, Skype chats, file transfers, social networking details. Talk about what this chart reveals.

GLENN GREENWALD: I think the crucial thing to realize is that hundreds of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions—in fact, billions of people around the world essentially rely on the Internet exclusively to communicate with one another. Very few people use landline phones for much of anything. So when you talk about things like online chats and social media messages and emails, what you’re really talking about is the full extent of human communication. And what the objective of the National Security Agency is, as the stories that we’ve revealed thus far demonstrate and as the stories we’re about to reveal into the future will continue to demonstrate—the objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy.


AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, as you reported, the PRISM program—not to be confused with prison, the PRISM program—is run with the assistance of the companies that participate, including Facebook and Apple, but all of those who responded to a Guardian request for comment denied knowledge of any of the program. This is what Google said, quote: "We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege [that] we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data."

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, first of all, after our story was published, and The Washington Post published more or less simultaneously a similar story, several news outlets, including NBC News, confirmed with government officials that they in fact have exactly the access to the data that we describe. The director of national intelligence confirmed to The New York Times, by name, that the program we identify and the capabilities that we described actually exist. So, you have a situation where somebody seems to be lying. The NSA claims that these companies voluntarily allow them the access; the companies say that they never did.

This is exactly the kind of debate that we ought to have out in the open. What exactly is the government doing in how it spies on us and how it reads our emails and how it intercepts our chats? Let’s have that discussion out in the open. To the extent that these companies and the NSA have a conflict and can’t get their story straight, let them have that conflict resolved in front of us. And then we, as citizens, instead of having this massive surveillance apparatus built completely secretly and in the dark without us knowing anything that’s going on, we can then be informed about what kinds of surveillance the government is engaged in and have a reasoned debate about whether that’s the kind of world in which we want to live.


GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, the fact that something is lawful doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous or tyrannical or wrong. You can enact laws that endorse tyrannical behavior. And there’s no question, if you look at what the government has done, from the PATRIOT Act, the Protect America Act, the Military Commissions Act and the FISA Amendments Act, that’s exactly what the war on terror has been about.

But I would just defer to two senators who are her colleagues, who are named Ron Wyden and Mark Udall. They have—are good Democrats. They have spent two years now running around trying to get people to listen to them as they’ve been saying, "Look, what the Obama administration is doing in interpreting the PATRIOT Act is so radical and so distorted and warped that Americans will be stunned to learn" — that’s their words — "what is being done in the name of these legal theories, these secret legal theories, in terms of the powers the Obama administration has claimed for itself in how it can spy on Americans."

When the PATRIOT Act was enacted—and you can go back and look at the debates, as I’ve done this week—nobody thought, even opponents of the PATRIOT Act, that it would ever be used to enable the government to gather up everybody’s telephone records and communication records without regard to whether they’ve done anything wrong. The idea of the PATRIOT Act was that when the government suspects somebody of being involved in terrorism or serious crimes, the standard of proof is lowered for them to be able to get these documents. But the idea that the PATRIOT Act enables bulk collection, mass collection of the records of hundreds of millions of Americans, so that the government can store that and know what it is that we’re doing at all times, even when there’s no reason to believe that we’ve done anything wrong, that is ludicrous, and Democratic senators are the ones saying that it has nothing to do with that law.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Glenn, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he stood by what he told Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon in March, when he said that the National Security Agency does "not wittingly" collect data on millions of Americans. Let’s go to that exchange.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?


SEN. RON WYDEN: It does not?

JAMES CLAPPER: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the questioning of the head of the national intelligence, James Clapper, by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: OK. So, we know that to be a lie, not a misleading statement, not something that was sort of parsed in a way that really was a little bit deceitful, but an outright lie.

They collect—they collect data and records about the communications activities and other behavioral activities of millions of Americans all the time. That’s what that program is that we exposed on Wednesday.

They go to the FISA court every three months, and they get an order compelling telephone companies to turn over the records, that he just denied they collect, with regard to the conversations of every single American who uses these companies to communicate with one another. The same is true for what they’re doing on the Internet with the PRISM program. The same is true for what the NSA does in all sorts of ways.


GLENN GREENWALD: I think Dianne Feinstein may be the most Orwellian political official in Washington. It is hard to imagine having a government more secretive than the United States. Virtually everything that government does, of any significance, is conducted behind an extreme wall of secrecy. The very few leaks that we’ve had over the last decade are basically the only ways that we’ve had to learn what our government is doing.

But look, what she’s doing is simply channeling the way that Washington likes to threaten the people over whom they exercise power, which is, if you expose what it is that we’re doing, if you inform your fellow citizens about all the things that we’re doing in the dark, we will destroy you. This is what their spate of prosecutions of whistleblowers have been about. It’s what trying to threaten journalists, to criminalize what they do, is about. It’s to create a climate of fear so that nobody will bring accountability to them.

It’s not going to work. I think it’s starting to backfire, because it shows their true character and exactly why they can’t be trusted to operate with power in secret. And we’re certainly not going to be deterred by it in any way. The people who are going to be investigated are not the people reporting on this, but are people like Dianne Feinstein and her friends in the National Security Agency, who need investigation and transparency for all the things that they’ve been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we want to thank you for being with us. Is this threat of you being investigated going to deter you in any way, as you continue to do these exclusives, these exposés?

GLENN GREENWALD: No, it’s actually going to embolden me to pursue these stories even more aggressively.

[cross-posted at open salon]

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Rangoon78's picture
Submitted by Rangoon78 on

Some historical perspective on the pro-privacy Obama:

Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated 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 phone record collection program.

Floor Statement General Michael Hayden Nomination

TOPIC: Foreign Policy & Defense
May 25, 2006
Senator Barack Obama
Floor Statement General Michael Hayden Nomination
Complete Text


I have no doubt that General Hayden will be confirmed. But I am going to reluctantly vote against him to send a signal to this administration that even in these circumstances, even in these trying times, President Bush is not above the law. No President is above the law. I am voting against Mr. Hayden in the hope that he will be more humble before the great weight of responsibility that he has not only to protect our lives but to protect our democracy.

Americans fought a Revolution in part over the right to be free from unreasonable searches–to ensure that our Government could not come knocking in the middle of the night for no reason. We need to find a way forward to make sure we can stop terrorists while protecting the privacy and liberty of innocent Americans. We have to find a way to give the President the power he needs to protect us, while making sure he does not abuse that power. It is possible to do that. We have done it before. We could do it again.
October 13, 2007:

techno's picture
Submitted by techno on

What's wrong with this picture?

Several things actually.

1) What the hell is NSA going to do with trillions of datapoints? Talk about drinking from a firehose. The only way this makes a difference is if somehow they have taken an interest in you. Since strategy #1 for use with Progressives is to ignore them, how do they ever identify someone of interest? Unless you are M. Moore and have won an Oscar, they have NO idea who the hell you are or why they should be interested in your political views or your drug consumption, or whatever. And while there is some comfort to be had from a belief that your government cares enough to at least spy on you, the chance that they give a shit you are is real close to zero.

2) If you want to change the world, the first thing you must do is stand up for your beliefs. I love the idea that someone at NSA is forced to read my blog every day. I would like to think it would do him a world of good. As the great Luther said when asked to recant his writings, "here I stand, I can do no other." My feelings exactly—although my Lutheran bravado is probably wasted because I am pretty sure I am still in the "to be ignored" category.

My guess is that NSA electronic spying, while odious, is a pretty damn trivial problem. It's just another distraction from real problems like the global debt situation, climate change, and the end of the age of petroleum. While Greenwald's outrage is probably admirable on some level, to me he's just another voice shouting "squirrel!"

Rangoon78's picture
Submitted by Rangoon78 on

I inadvertently left a date at the bottom of the above comment; this is what it was arttached to:
October 13, 2007:

A former Qwest Communications Internationale xecutive, appealing a conviction for insider trading, has alleged that the government withdrew opportunities for contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars after Qwest refused to participate in an unidentified National Security Agency program that the company thought might be illegal.

Former chief executive Joseph P. Nacchio, convicted in April of 19 counts of insider trading, said the NSA approached Qwest more than six months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to court documents unsealed in Denver this week.

Details about the alleged NSA program have been redacted from the documents, but Nacchio's lawyer said last year that the NSA had approached the company about participating in a warrantless surveillance program to gather information about Americans' phone records.

In the court filings disclosed this week, Nacchio suggests that Qwest's refusal to take part in that program led the government to cancel a separate, lucrative contract with the NSA in retribution. He is using the allegation to try to show why his stock sale should not have been considered improper.

Nacchio was convicted for selling shares of Qwest stock in early 2001, just before financial problems caused the company's share price to tumble. He has claimed in court papers that he had been optimistic that Qwest would overcome weak sales because of the expected top-secret contract with the government. Nacchio said he was forbidden to mention the specifics during the trial because of secrecy restrictions, but the judge ruled that the issue was irrelevant to the charges against him.

Nacchio's account, which places the NSA proposal at a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, suggests that the Bush administration was seeking to enlist telecommunications firms in programs without court oversight before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Sept. 11 attacks have been cited by the government as the main impetus for its warrantless surveillance efforts.

The allegations could affect the debate on Capitol Hill over whether telecoms sued for disclosing customers' phone records and other data to the government after the Sept. 11 attacks should be given legal immunity, even if they did not have court authorization to do so.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department, the NSA, the White House and the director of national intelligence declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal case against Nacchio and the classified nature of the NSA's activities. Federal filings in the appeal have not yet been disclosed.

In May 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA had been secretly collecting the phone-call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by major telecom firms. Qwest, it reported, declined to participate because of fears that the program lacked legal standing.

In a statement released after the story was published, Nacchio attorney Herbert Stern said that in fall 2001, Qwest was approached to give the government access to the private phone records of Qwest customers. At the time, Nacchio was chairman of the president's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.

"Mr. Nacchio made inquiry as to whether a warrant or other legal process had been secured in support of that request," Stern said. "When he learned that no such authority had been granted and that there was a disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process, including the Special Court which had been established to handle such matters, Mr. Nacchio concluded that these requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act."