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Where Were You in 2000?

Tomorrow the Columbia Chapter of the American Constitution Society will be hosting an NSA Surveillance Panel featuring Professors Michael Dorf, Lori Damrosch and Harold Edgar. I'm going to have to show up because it could be amusing. After all, there's a new accusation available about the NSA program, from a former spymaster:

"A lady had been to a school play the night before, and her son was in the school play and she thought he did a--a lousy job. Next morning, she was talking on the telephone to her friend, and she said to her friend something like this, 'Oh, Danny really bombed last night,' just like that. The computer spit that conversation out. The analyst that was looking at it was not too sure about what the conversation w--was referring to, so erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady and her phone number in the database as a possible terrorist."

Oh, I'm sorry: that's not a new accusation at all, nor is it about Bush's NSA program. It's an anecdote told on 60 Minutes way back in February 2000.

You know. The Clinton administration.

Now, back then we had a non-anonymous source making concrete and specific allegations about domestic spying (supposedly accomplished through the simple back-scratching tactic of Anglosphere Spy Agency A tapping everything forbidden to Anglosphere Spy Agency B and then sharing the data). As Cathy Young has pointed out, the events described above probably occurred prior to 1990--so pre-Clinton--but there's no reason to expect that Echelon suddenly went dormant when Clinton was inaugurated. Indeed, the European Union thought very much otherwise.

But if you look at the ACS, large-scale signals intelligence seems to be a bolt from the blue. Sure, the ACS wasn't around when 60 Minutes told its tales, but its panelists were. I've Googled and.... Lexis'd? (why isn't that a verb?)... for comments from any of them on signal intelligence prior to January 2001 and come up with a goose egg. (Maybe they've published on it, but I can't find it.) The national ACS site only turns up one hit for the word "echelon," in a discussion of Harriet Miers and whether she's in the top one. The Columbia ACS webpage has two or three posts mentioning the current debate, but Google doesn't find "echelon" on any page (or reference to any possible prior spying). Instead, Columbia's ACS feels that "America gazes into the mirror, confused, haggard, faintly recalling simpler times." When were these? Where were they?

The times weren't simpler. It just behooves some people to remember them that way.

So I think it's a legitimate question: are we worried about overuse of signal intellligence and spying on domestic conversations? Or is the panel there because it's particularly horrible when the packet sniffers are Republicans?

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Pay attention. http://mediamatters.org/items/200512240002#9
Unfortunately, I missed the presentation today. As for "Tiff's" comment above, it's typical of MediaMatters, in its pure partisan obscuring of the issue. The key move here, of course, is the word "target":
Denying allegations that Echelon was used to spy on Americans in the United States without a warrant, Tenet stated: "We do not target their conversations for collection in the United States unless a FISA warrant has been obtained from the FISA court by the Justice Department." In the same hearing, Hayden testified: "If [an] American person is in the United States of America, I must have a court order before I initiate any collection [of communications] against him or her."
(emphasis added) You have to parse this rather closely, because the "rebuttal" to allegations about Echelon generally ignores the propositions put forth. First, you can collect a lot of data without targeting individuals. So long as the data sits in a database and no one uses it, there's been no 'targetting.' My guess--and it's only a guess, but no one has the operational details of this program--is that Echelon and the NSA program worked technically in much the same way, that is to say, as a large datamining or packet-sniffing operation. Of course, it's highly amusing to watch the MediaMatters/ThinkProgress/'Industrial Left' contortions on this matter. On the one hand, the MediaMatters article above relies upon a ThinkProgress article called "The Echelon Myth," which quotes George Tenet's statements in 2000 as evidence that Echelon was conducted in compliance with FISA. But Tenet was there testifying with Michael Hayden (who provided the meat to back up Tenet's testimony: Tenet, after all, is CIA, while Hayden is NSA). No analysis of how a large-scale data-mining technology can do so, but hell, why deal with grimy technology when you can just trust some Clinton-era officials. Then we hit the irony. One of the top Google hits for Hayden Testimony Before Congress is also from ThinkProgress: Former NSA Director Hayden Lied To Congress And Broke The Law. In other words, according to ThinkProgress, we're supposed to believe Hayden when he says that the NSA conducted Echelon services according to FISA under Clinton, but not believe him regarding signals intelligence before or after 9/11. Hayden, apparently, is a credible witness right up until January 2001. That's a good laugh.

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