The National Security Agency (NSA) is a US intelligence agency under the authority of US Department of Defense. The NSA is responsible for global monitoring, collection, and processing of data and information for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes. The NSA is also officially tasked with protecting U.S. communications networks and information systems. The measures the NSA uses to accomplish these goals are largely clandestine (in other words, secret).
Formation of the NSA
The origins of the NSA can be traced back to April 28th, 1917, three weeks after the US declared war on Germany during World War I. A code and cipher decryption unit was established. The cipher decryption unit was based in Washington, D.C. and was part of the war effort under the authority of the executive branch without approval from congress.
After the disbandment of the U.S. Army cryptographic unit, known as MI-8, in 1919, the U.S. government officially created the Cipher Bureau (also known as Black Chamber). Black Chamber was the first peacetime cryptoanalytic government institution of the United States. The Cipher Bureau was jointly funded by the US State Department and the US Army. It’s mission was to break and decode diplomatic communications of other nations.
Its most notable accomplishment was when it aided American negotiators considerably by providing them with the decrypted traffic of the foreign delegations at the Washington Naval Conference, most notably the Japanese. Black Chamber successfully persuaded the largest U.S. telegram company at the time, Western Union, as well as several other communications companies to give the Black Chamber access to cable traffic of foreign embassies and consulates illegally.
The Black Chamber was eventually shut down in 1929 by U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who defended his decision by stating, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.
Originating as a unit to decipher coded communications in World War II, The NSA was officially formed in secret by President Harry S. Truman in 1952. Since then, it has become among the largest U.S. intelligence organizations in terms of budget and personnel. The NSA currently collects data on a massive scale and has been known to physically bug electronic systems as their main method to do this.
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) was created during World War 2 to intercept and decipher the communications of the Axis powers (such as Germany, Japan, Italy). When the war ended, the Secret Intelligence Service was turned into the Army Security Agency (ASA), and it was placed under the leadership of the Director of Military Intelligence.
On May 20, 1949, all cryptologic activities were centralized under a national organization called the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). Originally established within the U.S. Department of Defense, this organization was put under the command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The AFSA was tasked to direct Department of Defense communications and electronic intelligence activities. The AFSA was unable to centralize communications intelligence and did not work closely enough with Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). President Harry S. Truman in December of 1951 ordered a panel to investigate how AFSA had failed to achieve its goals. The results of the investigation led to the AFSA being re-branded as the National Security Agency (without the approval of congress).
The NSA was formally established by President Truman by decree in a memo released on October 24th 1952. President Truman’s memo was a classified document, and therefore the existence of the NSA was not known to the public at that time. Due to its clandestine nature, the NSA was typically referred to as “No Such Agency”.
Church Committee and the establishment of the FISA court:
In the 1960s, the NSA played an important part in expanding U.S. commitment to the Vietnam War by providing secret evidence of a North Vietnamese attack on the American destroyer USS Maddox during the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
A secret operation known as project “MINARET”, was set up by the NSA to monitor the the telephone communications of US Senator’s: Howard Baker and Frank Church in addition to major civil rights leaders at the time, including Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as prominent U.S. journalists, actors, intellectuals and athletes who criticized the Vietnam War. An internal review by the NSA concluded that the MINARET program was outright illegal. Britain’s Intelligence Agency Government Communications Headquarters also took part in the program.
A congressional hearing in 1975 led by Sen. Frank Church, showed that the NSA, working together with Britain’s SIGINT intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had routinely monitored the international communications of prominent anti-Vietnam war leaders such as Jane Fonda and Dr. Benjamin Spock. After President Richard Nixon resigned, there were multiple investigations of abuses of FBI, CIA and NSA powers. Senator Frank Church uncovered a CIA plot (ordered by the administration of President John F. Kennedy) to assassinate Fidel Castro. The investigation also uncovered NSA’s illegal wiretaps on U.S. citizens.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was passed into law as a result of these hearings. This was apparently designed to limit the practice of mass surveillance in the United States. However the act also established the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or FISA court). The FISA court is a secret federal court (in which the procedings and records are closed to the public) to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against foreign spies inside the United States by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These warrant requests are made most often by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). While records of the proceedings are kept, they also are unavailable to the public, although copies of some records (heavily redacted) have been released to the public.
Each application for one of these surveillance warrants (called a FISA warrant) is made before an individual judge of the court. The judges to the FISA court are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court without confirmation or oversight by the U.S. Congress.
From 1978 to 2013, there was a total of 35,529 FISA warrant requests. Of those, only 12 were denied. In other words 99.96% of warrant requests were approved. The court is essentially a rubber stamp of approval for government survellience policy. In a sense the FISA court has become a parallel Supreme Court while at the same time not being subject to any public oversight or accountability.
FISA court approved policies allow the NSA to do the following:
1. keep data that could potentially contain details of U.S. persons for up to five years
2. retain and make use of “accidentally acquired” domestic communications if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity.
3. preserve “foreign intelligence information” contained within attorney–client communications
4. access the content of communications gathered from “U.S. based machine[s]” or phone numbers in order to establish if targets are located in the U.S.
The broad spectrum of court orders, and the procedures set out in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed that the claims made by former President Obama and senior intelligence officials that the NSA could not access Americans’ call or email information without a warrant was not truthful.
Glenn Greenwald, who published details of the PRISM surveillance program explained:
“It offers no real safeguards. That’s because no court monitors what the NSA is actually doing when it claims to comply with the court-approved procedures. Once the Fisa court puts its approval stamp on the NSA’s procedures, there is no external judicial check on which targets end up being selected by the NSA analysts for eavesdropping. The only time individualized warrants are required is when the NSA is specifically targeting a US citizen or the communications are purely domestic. When it is time for the NSA to obtain Fisa court approval, the agency does not tell the court whose calls and emails it intends to intercept. It instead merely provides the general guidelines which it claims are used by its analysts to determine which individuals they can target, and the Fisa court judge then issues a simple order approving those guidelines. The court endorses a one-paragraph form order stating that the NSA’s process “‘contains all the required elements’ and that the revised NSA, FBI and CIA minimization procedures submitted with the amendment ‘are consistent with the requirements of [50 U.S.C. § 1881a(e)] and with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States'”…Once the NSA has this court approval, it can then target anyone chosen by their analysts, and can even order telecoms and internet companies to turn over to them the emails, chats and calls of those they target. The FISA court plays no role whatsoever in reviewing whether the procedures it approved are actually complied with when the NSA starts eavesdropping on calls and reading people’s emails. The guidelines submitted by the NSA to the FISA court demonstrate how much discretion the agency has in choosing who will be targeted. … The only oversight for monitoring whether there is abuse comes from the executive branch itself”
When the court was founded, it was composed of seven federal district judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States, each serving a seven-year term, with one judge being appointed each year. In 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act expanded the court from seven to eleven judges, and required that at least three of the Court’s judges live within twenty miles of Washington DC. As of 2017, Chief Justice John Roberts has appointed all of the current 11 judges on the FISA court.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for the New NSA headquarters that had just finished construction in Ft. Meade Maryland where he said that the NSA would preserve privacy and individual liberties while keeping the country safe. This promise did not turn out to be true.
Soon therafter, the NSA intercepted Libyan government communications in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin disco-tech bombing. The Reagan administration asserted that the NSA had provided “irrefutable” secret evidence that Libya was behind the bombing, which U.S. President Ronald Reagan used as a justification for the United States to subsequently bomb Libya that year.
War on Terror:
After the September 11 attacks, the NSA upgraded their Information Technology infrastructure to deal with the flood of information from the Internet and cellphones. ThinThread was an advanced data mining program which had a “privacy mechanism”; surveillance was stored encrypted; A warrant would have been required to decrypt the data. ThinThread was cancelled when NSA Director Michael Hayden chose a program called Trailblazer, which had no privacy system and would not require a warrant to monitor data.
Some NSA whistleblowers complained internally about major problems with Trailblazer. In response, NSA director at the time, Michael Hayden sent out a memo saying that “individuals, in a session with our congressional overseers, took a position in direct opposition to one that we had corporately decided to follow… Actions contrary to our decisions will have a serious adverse effect on our efforts to transform N.S.A., and I cannot tolerate them.”
It’s worth mentioning that Michael Hayden is the only person to have served as the Director of NSA and the Director of the CIA. He is now employed by CNN as an analyst and is giving Americans the “news” on a daily basis.
During Hayden’s directorship at the NSA, Multiple NSA employees filed complaints with the Department of Defense. Some of them included Diane S Roark, a budget analyst for the NSA, as well as Ex-NSA senior analysts Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, as well as Senior Computer Systems Analyst, Ed Loomis, who had quit the agency over concerns about acquisition of illegal material and illegal domestic spying.
A major source of information for the complaint to the Department of Defense came from NSA senior officer Thomas Andrews Drake. Drake had been complaining to his superiors for some time about illegal spying at the agency, and about the superiority of ThinThread over Trailblazer at protecting privacy.
Maureen Baginski, the third-highest ranking officer at the NSA also quit because of concerns about the legality of Trailblazer.
In 2003, the NSA Inspector General declared Trailblazer an expensive failure at a cost of $1 billion dollars.
In 2005, the Department of Defense Inspector General produced a report on the result of its investigation of the complaint of the Whistleblowers and the others in 2002. This report was not released to the public.
In November 2005, Drake contacted Siobhan Gorman, a reporter of The Baltimore Sun. The paper wrote multiple stories on the NSA and on project Trailblazer.
Later that year, President George W. Bush ordered the FBI to find who had disclosed information about the NSA electronic surveillance program to the press. Eventually, this investigation led to the people who had filed the Department of Defense Inspector General’s request in 2002, even though they had nothing to do with the disclosure.
In 2006, George W. Bush attempted to soothe the American Public who were concerned that laws were being broken, privacy was being violated, and assured the public that the NSA was only spying on people outside the country, not inside the US. This assurance turned out not to be true.
In 2007, the houses of Roark, Binney, and Wiebe were raided by armed FBI agents. Binney claims the FBI pointed guns at both him and his wife’s head. None of these people were ever charged with any crime. Drake was raided 4 months later in November 2007. His computers and documents were confiscated.
In 2010 Drake was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of obstructing justice, providing false information, and violating the Espionage Act of 1917. This was part of President Barack Obama’s crackdown on whistleblowers and “leakers”. The government tried to get Roark to testify to a conspiracy, and made similar requests to Drake, offering him a plea bargain. They both refused.
In June 2011, the ten original charges against Drake were dropped, and he eventually took a plea deal, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.
The next program, called “Turbulence” started in 2005. It was developed in small chunks, with functionality similar to Trailblazer, but which also included additional offensive cyber-warfare capabilities, such as injecting malware and viruses into remote computers.
The extreme scope of the NSA’s spying, at home and abroad, was revealed to the public in a series of disclosures of leaked NSA documents beginning in June 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, working for the company Booz Alan Hamiliton. Snowden released a series of classified NSA documents to the public and currently lives in Russia where he has political asylum. Before he ended up in Russia, he had an interview with the Guardian in Hong Kong to describe his actions and why he released the leaks.
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W Bush also reveal their thoughts on Edward Snowden shortly after the leaks.
George W. Bush
In 2014, after the Snowden Leaks, former President Barack Obama compared the NSA to the Sons of Liberty Paul Revere (A prominent figure during the American Revolutionary war) and attempted to explain to the public that the NSA protects privacy while keeping us safe, and that people who work for the NSA are regular people, just like your family, neighbors and friends…
Obama also said that the FISA court had made reforms to how the NSA collects it’s data, but since those reforms are secret and not revealed to the public, we don’t know what those reforms are.
Obama said that the US does not spy on US citizens and does not spy on foreign heads of state. His statements turned out not to be true. Wikileaks released a series of leaked diplomatic cables a year after Obama gave the following speech about the NSA, showing that the NSA had spied on US citizens and foreign heads of state, including the most recent case of the NSA tapping the communications Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany).
Before he was elected President, Donald Trump shared his thoughts on Snowden and the Leaks, saying that Snowden was a traitor. Later when Donald Trump was elected, his CIA director, Mike Pompeo said that Snowden should be executed for the leaks.
In March of 2017, after Donald Trump’s election, Vladimir Putin responded saying that he did not know Snowden, had no direct involvement in the issue, and that Russia isn’t helping or hurting him, only giving him an asylum.
Future challenges for citizens
Weaponization of Social Media. In recent years, social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and others have been implementing censorship at the behest of the US and Israeli governments, deleting accounts, removing posts, and marking posts as spam when they’re not.
Intelligence agents from the military, NSA, CIA and others have infiltrated Social Media platforms with fake accounts also, spreading misinformation and attacking those who question the authority or the truthfulness of statements coming from these companies and government organizations. This technique is called Astroturfing (in other words fake grassroots), and the fake accounts are called “sock puppet accounts”. Over time, if citizens are being censored and not able to speak online, and if intelligence agents are able to spread whatever misinformation they want to protect the establishment, Over time this can have the effect of making certain ideas and concepts seem mainstream when they’re not, and can make anybody questioning these ideas seem either crazy, stupid or a dangerous threat.
Another potential danger lurking in the present but will become all pervasive in the future, is the use of predictive computer algorithms. Social media companies and governments can use these techniques to predict human behavior, organize people into social bubbles, create conflict between groups and ultimately divide and conquer.
Former Facebook President Sean Parker, explains that the purpose of these Social Media networks was to manipulate people and get them addicted to the platform. They talked about it, had concerns about it, but did it anyway. These are the mundane facts. It’s not conspiracy theory, it’s conspiracy fact. Presidents and intelligence organizations such as the NSA have repeatedly abused their authority over the years and lied to the American people for decades…and their techniques are evolving and becoming more insidious. There are also many officials who have become whistleblowers from these organizations, with similar allegations of abuse of power.
Hopefully if people are aware these techniques are being used, they might be able to deprogram themselves out of it. Dividing and misinforming the public is the only way the establishment Oligarchy remains in power. If the people come together despite their differences, the political pressure can force changes to happen. Within the current system, it’s not about voting for your favorite politician, it’s not about finding a hero, it’s about working together with your fellow citizens to put community pressure on all elected officials and those who fund them. The citizens have given the politicians, corporations and billionaires a free pass for far too long.
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