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Somebody’s Watching You

It makes no difference if Edward Snowden, who had fled to Hong Kong and revealed that the American government was spying upon American citizens, is a traitor or a hero.

Intelligence agencies from China, Russia, England, Israel, and maybe even Lichtenstein, probably already know that the National Security Administration (NSA) is collecting data of all the phone calls and emails of Americans, and linking them to conversations with foreign nationals. What is unsettling is that everything the NSA is doing is legal. Secret federal courts can issue secret warrants to agencies that maintain secret files.

Americans who have been paying attention should also know that electronic spying—it sounds better when the government says it’s data mining to prevent terrorism—has been going on at least a decade.

In 2002, the federal government disclosed = Operation TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System. Dreamed up within the Department of Justice, the “spy on your mommy” nationwide program would have given, according to the Department of Justice, “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity.” When the U.S. Postal Service refused to participate in this witch hunt, the program failed.

About the time the Department of Justice was developing TIPS, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations developed TALON, the Threat and Local Observation Notice System. Like TIPS, TALON’s purpose was to encourage “civilians and military personnel to report on activities they consider suspicious.” The reports were “raw, non-validated” reports of “anomalous activities,” and likely to be “fragmented and incomplete,” according to a classified memo written in May 2003 by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. These unverified tips were then sent by “automated information systems or via e-mail attachment” to the secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) office, created in December 2002, and added to an equally super secret database.

Other than the problem of Defense staff spending significant time and money on the collection and analysis of massive amounts of unverified and mostly useless data, not only wasn’t that data purged within 90 days, as promised, but subsequent investigations revealed the Department of Defense had been collecting data on persons who opposed the war in Iraq but posed no threat to national security.

More sinister than TIPS and TALON was TIAP, the Total Information Awareness Program to create an “ultra-large-scale” database of databases about individuals. The program was designed to develop a file on every American. That program was never fully funded, apparently because even Congress didn’t want the government spying on whatever it is that Congress does.

However, parts of discredited programs were quickly moved into classified status, with “need to know” stamped all over them, and then fused into new programs. Next up: the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). The program, under the CIA but with the input from several other federal agencies, was designed to “merge and analyze terrorist-related information collected domestically and abroad in order to form the most comprehensive possible threat picture.” However, the inspector general of the Department of Justice revealed the program “could not ensure that the information in that database was complete and accurate.” It noted conflicting information, that some on the list were noted as “armed and dangerous” but given the lowest rating, while others with little or no history of violence were given higher ratings. The report was especially critical of the handling of data—“A lack of sufficient training, oversight and general management of the call screeners has left the activities of the call center vulnerable to procedural errors, poor data entry and untimely responses to callers.”

MATRIX, the name imposed by the acronym-happy government for the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, was was finally shut down in April 2005 when the federal government reluctantly stopped its funding. MATRIX was created to give local and state governments a common database that merged government and private records. Like private credit reports, MATRIX included data that was incomplete or completely wrong. Seisint, the private company that Congress showered millions of dollars upon, also collected data about ethnicity, meal requirements, and telephone calling records. Interestingly, MATRIX didn’t include records of gun ownership, which could be a far more important indicator to determine possible terrorism potential than the color of eyes of an individual, based upon driver’s license information.

The Center for Dynamic Data Analysis developed software and machine-learning algorithms that to monitor the news media, blogs, web sites, and possibly internet messages for any negative views about the United States and its leaders. The data mining program, according to the government, was also to be used “to identify members of groups who want to form a demonstration or oppose a particular event or government policy,” Publically, the government claimed only articles published by non-American media would be captured and then mined. Even if  accurate—President George W. Bush had sworn that the U.S. wasn’t routinely monitoring conversations between Americans, only to later admit he wasn’t telling the truth—numerous foreign publications include articles and RSS news feeds from American publications.

In March 2003, all airlines were required to provide U. S. Customs with electronic data of their passengers’ personal information, including ethnicity and meal requirements. After bullying 25 European Union nations, the U.S. got agreements that would yield personal data in 34 categories on every passenger who flies into or out of the United States. Three years later, the European Court of Justice ruled that the agreement between the 25-nation EU and the United States was illegal, and ordered member nations not to supply data to the United States unless changes to protect citizen rights and privacy were enacted.

The secret “No-Fly” list of March 2006 contained about 44,000 names, among them hundreds of individuals who opposed the Bush–Cheney Administration or the war in Iraq.

The federal government claims the NSA sweep has already stopped 50 potential terrorist activities. Two questions must be asked. First, could these activities had been stopped, using traditional law enforcement procedures that have already stopped hundreds of other possible terrorist events, if there was not massive surveillance? And, second, how do we even know that 50 events were stopped? After all, are we just supposed to trust the word of a government that has been acting more like a totalitarian state than a constitutional republic?

Walter Brasch’s book, America’s Unpatriotic Acts, was the first major book to catalogue and then destroy the government’s belief that the PATRIOT Act was necessary to protect American security at the expense of the Bill of Rights. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks into the health, environmental, and economic effects of fracking. 

More articles by:

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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