The Spybots Among Us

How the NSA tracks terrorists in the United States through the Internet

Eventually, intercepted data is threshed and winnowed down to the PC level, where it can be manipulated by human brains. For example, Applied Signal's Pager Identification and Message Extraction device, as viewed on the company's Web site, inputs intercepted data, such as telephone numbers, directly into an Excel spreadsheet. Shelves of commercially available analytical software, such as Xanalysis Inc.'s Watson and i2 Inc.'s Analyst's Notebook, help human beings connect people, places, things, money, weapons, and credit card charges into meaningful patterns. Hard information can be cross-referenced by NSA agents against behemoth databanks maintained by the government and corporations, such as Microsoft, ChoicePoint, DoubleClick, and other data-mining and financial-service companies that openly do business with the NSA and its sister agencies.


The Patriot Act's expansion of the NSA's spying authority is the latest political development in a decades-long struggle between NSA hard-liners and civil liberties advocates. The NSA was created shortly after World War II to advance encryption and decryption techniques, to defend the nation's telecommunications system from attack, and to covertly intercept messages and sort them into useful categories for intelligence purposes. For 30 years, its very existence was a state secret. In August 1975, liberal members of the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation which revealed that, on a daily basis, the major telecommunications companies delivered to the NSA copies of all international telegrams and telexes sent to and from the United States by citizens and noncitizens alike. The NSA also used FBI and CIA watch lists to target the communications of more than 1,600 Americans, mostly critics of the Vietnam War. (Bamford reported in Body of Secrets that the NSA receives Internet watch lists from the CIA, State Department, and other bodies, containing topical keywords, names, phrases, and telephone and fax numbers.)

The Senate committee's revelation that the NSA was spying domestically, without court authorizations, resulted in the passing of new laws, most notably the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which were intended to restrict the NSA and the federal government's 12 other intelligence agencies from spying on U.S. persons without a warrant. FISA requires the NSA to obtain a court order from a secret panel of federal judges when targeting U.S. persons in the United States for surveillance.

The NSA rarely applies to the FISA court, however. David L. Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., says, "It is NSA policy to err on the side of assuming that collected communications are not of U.S. persons." Sobel believes that this presumption should be reversed, since non-U.S. persons have little or no protection against unreasonable search and seizure of their e-mail.

Instead, the NSA operates according to partially declassified internal guidelines that allow its director to authorize domestic intelligence-gathering. Severely redacted copies of two of these internal guides have been obtained by the Federation of American Scientists and posted on its Web site. According to these documents, the NSA director is allowed to order the collection and dissemination of information about a U.S. person according to a whole catalog of reasons, including for law enforcement purposes; to protect classified secrets; to protect the country's electronic communications system; or in the case of significant importance to foreign intelligence-gathering. The NSA is allowed to share its information on U.S. persons with the FBI and other government agencies under a wide variety of circumstances and without court approval. It may build databases on U.S. persons that include personal information such as "criminal, educational, financial, and medical histories associated with a specific name or other personal identifier (such as Social Security Account Number, passport number, or bank account number)."

The ability of American intelligence agencies to gather such information was given a huge technical boost in 1994, when Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required telecommunications carriers to modify their equipment so that law enforcement and intelligence operatives can, in essence, double click on an icon to turn on a telephone or high-speed modem line wiretap.

The Patriot Act enables the NSA, and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to minimize the red tape in the system of checks and balances previously set up by Congress to protect U.S. persons from having their communications eavesdropped on and analyzed. It allows the NSA to install wiretaps and to access stored electronic communications, such as voice mail, without obtaining a specific court order for a specific location. It changes federal law to allow the NSA to follow the electronic trail of suspects as they move across the country using multiple telephones and computers. Privacy advocates are concerned that wiretapping without a court order based on a showing of probable cause that the suspect is a terrorist violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Most important, the Patriot Act broadens the definition of who can be defined as a "terrorist." Some civil liberties groups claim the language is vague enough that it could include U.S. citizens who take part in acts of civil disobedience.

But even before Sept. 11, the government's definition of terrorism was quite broad. Last year, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh testified before the Senate Committee on Appropriations about cyberthreats to national security. Before Sept. 11, the FBI considered domestic terrorism to be the main threat to America. The "domestic terrorist threat comes from right-wing extremist groups, left-wing and Puerto Rican extremist groups, and special interest extremists," Freeh said, "including pro-life, environmental, and anti-nuclear [groups] ... the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front ... and anarchists, operating individually and in groups, [that] caused much of the damage during the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle."

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