90 Miles From Tyranny : Deep State, Dark Intentions

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Deep State, Dark Intentions

The NSA concentrates on collecting information on ordinary citizens because they are the low hanging fruit, while the real enemies of the U.S. are much harder to catch. 

Barton Gellman’s Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State raises important questions about American society and politics. It deals with power over personal information and its implications for control, secrecy, individual rights, and politics on a global scale.

The author starts with Edward Snowden and his revelations of the existence of a global surveillance leviathan, feeding off the main arteries of global communications networks. Gellman was one of three journalists who first received the secret National Security Agency files from Snowden and wrote a series of articles about them for the Washington Post, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He describes his encounters with Snowden, the information he provided, and his efforts to verify the files and expand on them.

Dark Mirror expands into a search for a deeper understanding of the surveillance state through the author’s interviews with top Bush and Obama Administration intelligence officials, participation in industry conferences, and research. This is parallel with Gellman’s effort to keep his contacts secret to avoid legal jeopardy, connected with his cooperation with Snowden and publicizing classified information.

The picture that emerges from this book will be unfamiliar to most Americans. Surveillance was pervasive until the Church Committee reforms led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which restricted spying on U.S. citizens and residents, requiring individual warrants. Outside of the United States, President Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 created a legal framework for foreign surveillance.

Golden Age of Surveillance

The aftermath of September 11, 2001, ushered in a golden age of surveillance. Essentially all restrictions were lifted. President George W. Bush ordered the NSA to disregard the statutory warrant requirement and set up a special unit through Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, which oversaw a mass-surveillance program global in scope. It could legally obtain all account information from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, Paltalk, phone companies, and other partners—so-called metadata. It consisted of a listing of calls and emails, their destination, time, and duration.

NSA analysts not only could review account information but also dial in and record live audio, video, chat and file transfer and instantly read keystrokes. The justification was the search for unknown terrorists, as it turned out that much of the world’s communications flow through the United States as the cheapest route and that foreigners often used U.S. email accounts.

Another major program established after 9/11 was the location database for virtually all cellphone users in the world. It tracks and stores the location of every device that places mobile telephone calls, logging each phone’s whereabouts over time. The database, Gellman reports, gathered nearly 5 billion records a day pertaining to the movements of millions of individuals. Intelligence agencies could also buy location data information for cellphones commercially.

The U.S. government also began the bulk collection of electronic address books, which permits contact tracing among large numbers of individuals. The alleged purpose was to find unknown associates of known intelligence targets, especially terrorists.

The global scope of the mass-surveillance program was made possible by the intelligence cooperation between the United States and the “Five Eyes” partners: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Domestic Surveillance

Fourth Amendment protections, suspended after 9/11, were permanently modified through the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and 2012, which defined the legal authority to wiretap at home. Previously, the government could not search an individual account without a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Each warrant required probable cause to believe that a specific account belonged to an agent of a foreign power. The FISA court performed an individual review before granting warrants.

After 2008, the court would authorize surveillance of an unlimited number of accounts with a single order. This order is defined through rules chosen to define individual accounts to be monitored. Once a year, in a classified session, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reviews the procedure for target selection and for masking the names of Americans who...

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