Bruce Schneier: Uncle Sam is listening





[Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and the author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World."]

... Illegal wiretapping of Americans is nothing new. In the 1950s and '60s, the NSA intercepted every single telegram coming in or going out of the United States. It conducted eavesdropping without a warrant on behalf of the CIA and other agencies. Much of this became public during the 1975 Church Committee hearings and resulted in the now famous Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

The purpose of this law was to protect the American people by regulating government eavesdropping. Like many laws limiting the power of government, it relies on checks and balances: one branch of the government watching the other. The law established a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and empowered it to approve national-security-related eavesdropping warrants. The Justice Department can request FISA warrants to monitor foreign communications as well as communications by American citizens, provided that they meet certain minimal criteria.

The FISC issued about 500 FISA warrants per year from 1979 through 1995, a rate that has slowly increased since -- 1,758 were issued in 2004. The process is designed for speed and even has provisions by which the Justice Department can wiretap first and ask for permission later. In all that time, only four warrant requests were ever rejected, all in 2003. (We don't know any details, of course, as the court proceedings are secret.)

FISA warrants are carried out by the FBI, but in the days immediately after the terrorist attacks, there was a widespread perception in Washington that the FBI wasn't up to dealing with the new threats -- they couldn't uncover plots in a timely manner. So, instead, the Bush administration turned to the NSA. It had the tools, the expertise, the experience, and so was given the mission.

The NSA's ability to eavesdrop on communications is exemplified by a technological capability called Echelon. Echelon is the world's largest information "vacuum cleaner," sucking up a staggering amount of communications data -- satellite, microwave, fiber-optic, cellular and everything else -- from all over the world: an estimated 3 billion communications per day. These communications are then processed through sophisticated data-mining technologies, which look for simple phrases like "assassinate the president" as well as more complicated communications patterns.

Supposedly Echelon only covers communications outside of the United States. Although there is no evidence that the Bush administration has employed Echelon to monitor communications to and from the U.S., this surveillance capability is probably exactly what the president wanted and may explain why the administration sought to bypass the FISA process of acquiring a warrant for searches.

Perhaps the NSA just didn't have any experience submitting FISA warrants, so Bush unilaterally waived that requirement. And perhaps Bush thought FISA was a hindrance -- in 2002 there was a widespread but false belief that the FISC got in the way of the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui (the presumed "20th hijacker") -- and bypassed the court for that reason.

Most likely, Bush wanted a whole new surveillance paradigm. You can think of the FBI's capabilities as "retail surveillance": It eavesdrops on a particular person or phone. The NSA, on the other hand, conducts "wholesale surveillance." It, or more exactly its computers, listens to everything. ...



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