Somewhere between Sept. 11 and today, the enemy morphed from a handful of terrorists to the American population at large, leaving us nowhere to run and no place to hide.
Within weeks of the attacks, the giant ears of the National Security Agency, always pointed outward toward potential enemies, turned inward on the American public itself. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established 23 years before to ensure that only suspected foreign agents and terrorists were targeted by the NSA, would be bypassed. Telecom companies, required by law to keep the computerized phone records of their customers confidential unless presented with a warrant, would secretly turn them over in bulk to the NSA without ever asking for a warrant.
Around the country, in tall, windowless telecom company buildings known as switches, NSA technicians quietly began installing beam-splitters to redirect duplicate copies of all phone calls and email messages to secret rooms behind electronic cipher locks.
There, NSA software and hardware designed for “deep packet inspection” filtered through the billions of email messages looking for key names, words, phrases and addresses. The equipment also monitored phone conversations and even what pages people view on the Web — the porn sites they visit, the books they buy on Amazon, the social networks they interact with and the text messages they send and receive.
Because the information is collected in real time, attempting to delete history caches from a computer is useless.
At the NSA, thousands of analysts who once eavesdropped on troop movements of enemy soldiers in distant countries were now listening in on the bedroom conversations of innocent Americans in nearby states.
“We were told that we were to listen to all conversations that were intercepted, to include those of Americans,” Adrienne Kinne, a former NSA “voice interceptor,” told me. She was recalled to active duty after Sept. 11.
“Some of those conversations are personal,” she said. “Some even intimate. … I had a real problem with the fact that people were listening to it and that I was listening to it. … When I was on active duty in ’94 to ’98, we would never collect on an American.”
Despite his hollow campaign protests, President Barack Obama has greatly expanded what President George W. Bush began. And through amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Congress largely ratified the secret Bush program.
So much intercepted information is now being collected from “enemies” at home and abroad that, in order to store it all, the agency last year began constructing the ultimate monument to eavesdropping. Rising in a remote corner of Utah, the agency’s gargantuan data storage center will be 1 million square feet, cost nearly $2 billion and likely be capable of eventually holding more than a yottabyte of data — equal to about a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text.
By Sept. 11, 2011, the words of George Orwell in his novel “1984” will have become prophetic. “Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it,” he wrote in 1949, long before the Internet. “You have to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard.”
On Sept. 10, 2001, however, Winston would have found a radically different society. The NSA, the surveillance equivalent of a nuclear bomb, was allowed to point its massive antennas and satellites only away from the country. Before an American could be targeted, a judge from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would first have to find a link to terrorism or espionage in order to issue a warrant. And installing permanent taps on all of the country’s major communications links would have been impossible.
More than 35 years earlier, one person warned of such a possibility. On Aug. 17, 1975, as America was enjoying a lazy summer watching “Jaws” and “The Exorcist” at the movies, Idaho Sen. Frank Church took his seat on “Meet the Press.” For months, as the first chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Church had been conducting the first in-depth investigation of America’s growing intelligence community.
When he looked into the NSA, he came away shocked by its potential for abuse. Without mentioning the agency’s name — almost forbidden at the time — he nonetheless offered an unsolicited but grave warning:
“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter,” Church said. “There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.
“I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
Church’s warning then has even more resonance today. In 1975, most people communicated only by telephone and the mail. While the NSA had the technical capability back then to intercept the limited telephone calls sent by satellite, it lacked the capability to monitor the millions of calls transmitted around the country over wires, the predominant method used, or anything sent through the mail.
Today, with everyone constantly communicating over cellphones and email, and spending hours on the Internet, the agency has the ability not just to hear and read what someone says but even to understand what and how they think.
America crossed Church’s proverbial bridge not because of the attacks. It’s been clearly shown that Sept. 11 could have easily been prevented with just the technology at hand — it was caused by human failure, not technological failure.
Rather, it was years of fearmongering that sent everyone rushing across the bridge. Without these draconian measures, we were told, we were in imminent danger of death by terrorist. For the Bush administration, the constant drumbeat of fear was necessary to launch and support the war in Iraq since no real danger existed.
From the outside, America began resembling Deputy Barney Fife from “The Andy Griffith Show,” shaking and trembling and constantly pointing a gun in every direction. There was Homeland Security with its rainbow of colors for security alerts; the weekly warnings of dire attacks, with no indication of time or location, none of which ever turned out to be credible; messages plastered on buses and billboards warning members of the public to keep a close eye on their neighbors and even their family; and body frisks at airports by security thugs looking for forbidden tubes of toothpaste.
Church was also right in his warning that once over the abyss, there is no return. Laws put in place stay in place — even if the reason for the fear is gone or never existed in the first place. And technology always moves forward; it never recedes.
A surveillance system capable of monitoring 10 million people simultaneously this year will be able to monitor 100 million the next year — at probably half the cost. And every time new communications technology appears on the market, rest assured that someone at the NSA has already found a way to monitor it. It’s what the NSA does.
What Church likely never anticipated was the rise of the security-industrial complex, a revolving door between those generating the fears and those profiting from them.
When warning the country of the dangers of an unchained NSA, Church may have been thinking of a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche when he spoke of the abyss:
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that
In the process he does not become a monster
And when you look long into the abyss
The abyss also looks into you.”