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Homeland Security

About the Author

Alfred W. McCoy
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A...

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While those running US combat operations overseas were experimenting with intercepts, satellites, drones and biometrics, inside Washington the plodding civil servants of internal security at the FBI and the NSA initially began expanding domestic surveillance through thoroughly conventional data sweeps, legal and extra-legal and--with White House help--several abortive attempts to revive a tradition that dates back to World War I of citizens spying on suspected subversives.

"If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it," said President George Bush in his April 2002 call for nationwide citizen vigilance. Within weeks, his Justice Department had launched Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), with plans for "millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others" to aid the government by spying on their fellow Americans. Such citizen surveillance sparked strong protests, however, forcing Justice to quietly bury the president's program.

Simultaneously, inside the Pentagon, Admiral John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan's former national security advisor (swept up in the Iran/Contra scandal of that era), was developing a Total Information Awareness program that was to contain "detailed electronic dossiers" on millions of Americans. When news leaked about this secret Pentagon office with its eerie, all-seeing eye logo, Congress banned the program, and the admiral resigned in 2003. But the key data extraction technology, the Information Awareness Prototype System, migrated quietly to the NSA.

Soon enough, however, the CIA, FBI and NSA turned to monitoring citizens electronically without the need for human tipsters, rendering the administration's grudging retreats from conventional surveillance at best an ambiguous political victory for civil liberties advocates. Sometime in 2002, President Bush gave the NSA secret, illegal orders to monitor private communications through the nation's telephone companies and its private financial transactions through SWIFT, an international bank clearinghouse.

After the New York Times exposed these wiretaps in 2005, Congress quickly capitulated, first legalizing this illegal executive program and then granting cooperating phone companies immunity from civil suits. Such intelligence excess was, however, intentional. Even after Congress widened the legal parameters for future intercepts in 2008, the NSA continued to push the boundaries of its activities, engaging in what the New York Times politely termed the systematic "overcollection" of electronic communications among American citizens. Now, for example, thanks to a top-secret NSA data base called "Pinwale," analysts routinely scan countless "millions" of domestic electronic communications without much regard for whether they came from foreign or domestic sources.

Starting in 2004, the FBI launched an Investigative Data Warehouse as a "centralized repository for... counterterrorism." Within two years, it contained 659 million individual records. This digital archive of intelligence, social security files, drivers' licenses and records of private finances could be accessed by 13,000 bureau agents and analysts making a million queries monthly. By 2009, when digital rights advocates sued for full disclosure, the database had already grown to over a billion documents.

And did this sacrifice of civil liberties make the United States a safer place? In July 2009, after a careful review of the electronic surveillance in these years, the inspectors general of the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the CIA, the NSA and the Office of National Intelligence issued a report sharply critical of these secret efforts. Despite George W. Bush's claims that massive electronic surveillance had "helped prevent attacks," these auditors could not find any "specific instances" of this, concluding such surveillance had "generally played a limited role in the FBI's overall counterterrorism efforts."

Amid the pressures of a generational global war, Congress proved all too ready to offer up civil liberties as a bipartisan burnt offering on the altar of national security. In April 2007, for instance, in a bid to legalize the Bush administration's warrantless wiretaps, Congressional representative Jane Harman (Democrat of California) offered a particularly extreme example of this urge. She introduced the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, proposing a powerful national commission, functionally a standing "star chamber," to "combat the threat posed by homegrown terrorists based and operating within the United States." The bill passed the House by an overwhelming 404-to-6 vote before stalling, and then dying, in a Senate somewhat more mindful of civil liberties.

Only weeks after Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, Harman's life itself became a cautionary tale about expanding electronic surveillance. According to information leaked to the Congressional Quarterly, in early 2005, an NSA wiretap caught Harman offering to press the Bush Justice Department for reduced charges against two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage. In exchange, an Israeli agent offered to help Harman gain the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee by threatening House Democratic majority leader Nancy Pelosi with the loss of a major campaign donor. As Harman put down the phone, she said, "This conversation doesn't exist."

How wrong she was. An NSA transcript of Harman's every word soon crossed the desk of CIA Director Porter Goss, prompting an FBI investigation that, in turn, was blocked by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. As it happened, the White House knew that the New York Times was about to publish its sensational revelation of the NSA's warrantless wiretaps, and felt it desperately needed Harman for damage control among her fellow Democrats. In this commingling of intrigue and irony, an influential legislator's defense of the NSA's illegal wiretapping exempted her from prosecution for a security breach discovered by an NSA wiretap.

Since the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House, the auto-pilot expansion of digital domestic surveillance has in no way been interfered with. As a result, for example, the FBI's "Terrorist Watchlist," with 400,000 names and a million entries, continues to grow at the rate of 1,600 new names daily.

In fact, the Obama administration has even announced plans for a new military cybercommand staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees at Lackland Air Base in Texas. This command will be tasked with attacking enemy computers and repelling hostile cyber-attacks or counterattacks aimed at US computer networks--with scant respect for what the Pentagon calls "sovereignty in the cyberdomain." Despite the president's assurances that operations "will not--I repeat--will not include monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic," the Pentagon's top cyberwarrior, General James E. Cartwright, has conceded such intrusions are inevitable.

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