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March 8-14, 2006

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Alberto Gonzales

Tapping at the Chamber Door: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies last month at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about secret spying by the National Security Agency. Gonzales defended the administration's actions, but critics say the wiretapping is illegal.

Bring the Noise

A tech CEO and a little information science shed light on what the mainstream media won't say about the NSA domestic spying scandal

By Peter Byrne


IN 1998, the FBI spent a month on the premises of Northern California-based Sonic.net tracking two hackers who were breaking into military computers. The Internet service provider's technicians assisted the feds after determining that crimes were being committed using their circuits, and the hackers were convicted on the basis of evidence supplied by the ISP.

Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic.net, says he sees a couple of law enforcement subpoenas and wiretap orders like that each year. Jasper says that in his few encounters with government agents, they were careful to protect the civil rights of Sonic.net customers—which makes sense, since improperly collected evidence could be thrown out of court.

In light of these previous experiences with spying in his slice of cyberspace, Jasper is aghast at revelations that President Bush ordered the National Security Agency to illegally surveil the phone calls and emails of certain American citizens, "I am baffled by why the NSA did not seek court orders to wiretap," he says. "That speaks volumes about the Bush administration's respect for due process of the law."

Jasper is especially critical of the various telecommunications companies that complied with the NSA's illegal wiretap instructions. The young tech CEO is also concerned about a recent legal ruling that could compel ISPs to provide technological backdoors into their equipment for federal spies, the same as telephone companies already do.

He's not the only one who's wary of this increasingly invasive surveillance society. In 2003, as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) wrote to Vice President Dick Cheney to "reiterate my concerns regarding the sensitive intelligence issues we discussed today. Clearly, the activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues ... exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the Administration is moving with regard to security, technology and surveillance."

Last month, Rockefeller made a motion for the Intelligence Committee to investigate the NSA's warrantless surveillance program. His proposed investigation was sweeping. It included inspecting the bulk of domestic electronic surveillance activities by the NSA after Sept. 11, 2001. He asked for the legal justification of the surveillance program, if any exists. He asked for the "technical means" and "operational procedures" to be revealed. He asked if the wiretap information was shared with other government agencies; which telecommunications corporations assisted the NSA adventure; and how the information was deployed.

Rockefeller's request was limited to domestic interceptions by the NSA, which is theoretically focused on scooping up "foreign" electronic communications. Even though the investigation and its results would have been top secret, the committee, which includes California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, torpedoed Rockefeller's proposal.

"This rationale for withholding information from Congress is unacceptable and nothing more than a political smokescreen by the White House," said Rockefeller.

'Giant, Secret Databases'

What many people do not know, however, is that Bush does not have to break the law to conduct "normal" domestic surveillance. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, D.C., told me last year, "There is no explicit prohibition in any law to the effect that the Pentagon may not engage in domestic intelligence."

To place a wiretap or to search a home of suspected terrorists without their knowledge, Martin notes, officials need a secret warrant from an intelligence court—but other than that, they have a great deal of leeway.

"The military can follow you around. It can use giant, secret databases of linked networks to gather a picture of the activities of millions of Americans, mapping all of their associations, and the only restriction is that such surveillance be done for purposes of foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, the drug war or force protection."

And it is not just Donald Rumsfeld who can cache your electronic profile. The militarized bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security just released its "Intelligence Enterprise Strategic Plan." According to Chief Intelligence Officer Charles Allen, "Intelligence is central to all that DHS does." Central. Forget hurricanes.

Allen's computers "fuse" information from law enforcement, local, state and federal intelligence agencies, "private sector partners," satellites and Predator drones to track "terrorist suspects."

Signal to Noise

How is it that this culture of domestic spying is allowed to continue and expand? Information science may offer a clue: it tells us that in order to measure the amount of intelligible information coded in a signal—whether it be transmitted by pheromone-laden ant trails, bird calls or cell phone circuits—random noise must be subtracted from the message-signal. The resulting information is nicely defined by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson: "Communication is neither the signal by itself nor the response; it is instead the relation between the two." Real communication, he says, changes the behavior of the listener.

The best way to reduce the noise factor is to repeat a signal over and over again (the telegraphed "SOS," for example). Repetition, of course, does not make a message true. But signal redundancy does make a message—such as "The terrorists are coming!"—stand out from the cacophony of less-echoed signals.

"It is possible to project an endless number of unreal images: fiction or lies, speculation or fraud, idealism or demagoguery, the definition depending on whether the communicator informs the listener of his intention to speak falsely," says Wilson. Demagogues, naturally, seldom tell you they are lying. As a defense against official prevarication, it is possible to conceive of a free press whose duty it is to amplify and repeat signals that contradict falsehoods.

But The New York Times sat on information that President Bush had illegally ordered the NSA wiretaps—for a whole year. The Times ran the story a few days before its censored reporter, James Risen, published a book revealing the secret crime.

Curtsying to power, "news" corporations affect the behavior of millions of people. The decision to not transmit information about NSA spying was itself a signal—a messages conveyed in absentia that sanctioned horrendous behavior.

How Far?

Case in point is a Feb. 15 speech by U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), which did not merit acknowledgment in the Times- and Post-dominated media. While California's two "liberal" senators joined a political stampede to reauthorize the Patriot Act, Byrd remonstrated on the floor of the Senate: "In the name of 'fighting terror,' are we to sacrifice every freedom to a president's demand? How far are we to go? Can a president order warrantless, house-to-house searches of a neighborhood where he suspects a terrorist may be hiding? Can he impose new restrictions on what can be printed, what can be broadcast, what can be uttered privately because of some perceived threat—perceived by him—to national security? Laughable thoughts? I think not."

On Feb. 16, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declined to investigate the National Security Agency's ongoing, largely illegal snooping on domestic telecommunications and cyberspace. Instead of indicting Bush, Congress is poised to retroactively approve his clearly criminal action.

And I could not find a single newspaper report on Byrd's Feb. 17 speech decrying the Senate intelligence committee's "jettisoning [of] its constitutional responsibility to make certain our revered Constitution remain in force.

"I plead with the American public to tune in to what is happening in this country," said Byrd. "Please forget the political party with which you may usually be associated and, instead, think about the right of due process, the presumption of innocence, and the right to a private life."

Byrd quoted James Madison: "[T]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly pronounce the very definition of tyranny."


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