America under surveillance

Granted new power to spy inside the U.S., the Bush administration may be doing more than eavesdropping on phone calls -- it could be watching suspects' every move.

Topics: CIA, Department of Justice, FISA, Iraq, Middle East, 9/11, Espionage, Homeland Security,

America under surveillance

In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 1, 2005, a U-2 surveillance aircraft known as the Dragon Lady lifted off the runway at Beale Air Force Base in California, the home of the U.S. Air Force 9th Reconnaissance Wing and one of the most important outposts in the U.S. intelligence world. Originally built in secret by Lockheed Corp. for the Central Intelligence Agency, the U-2 has provided some of the most sensitive intelligence available to the U.S. government, including thousands of photographs of Soviet and Chinese military bases, North Korean nuclear sites, and war zones from Afghanistan to Iraq.

But the aircraft that took off that September morning wasn’t headed overseas to spy on America’s enemies. Instead, for the next six hours it flew directly over the U.S. Gulf Coast, capturing hundreds of high-resolution images as Hurricane Katrina, one of the largest storms of the past century, slammed into New Orleans and the surrounding region.

The U-2 photos were matched against satellite imagery captured during and after the disaster by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Relatively unknown to the public, the NGA was first organized in 1996 from the imagery and mapping divisions of the CIA, the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that builds and maintains the nation’s fleet of spy satellites. In 2003, the NGA was formally inaugurated as a combat support agency of the Pentagon. It is responsible for supplying overhead imagery and mapping tools to the military, the CIA and other intelligence agencies — including the National Security Agency, whose wide-reaching, extrajudicial spying inside the United States under the Bush administration has been a heated political issue since first coming to light in the media nearly two years ago.

The NGA’s role in Hurricane Katrina has received little attention outside of a few military and space industry publications. But the agency’s close working relationship with the NSA — whose powers to spy domestically were just expanded with new legislation from Congress — raises the distinct possibility that the U.S. government could be doing far more than secretly listening in on phone calls as it targets and tracks individuals inside the United States. With the additional capabilities of the NGA and the use of other cutting-edge technologies, the government could also conceivably be following the movements of those individuals minute by minute, watching a person depart from a mosque in, say, Lodi, Calif., or drive a car from Chicago to Detroit.

Prior to Katrina, the NGA had been used sporadically during domestic crises. Its first baptism of fire came after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the agency collected imagery to help in the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the storm of 2005 triggered NGA activity on a scale never before seen inside the borders of the United States. “Hurricane Katrina changed everything with what we do with disasters,” John Goolgasian, the director of the NGA’s Office of Americas, told Salon. In New York after 9/11, the NGA had only a handful of people on the ground, but “with Katrina, we put a lot of people down in the theater,” he said, using a term usually reserved for overseas military battlegrounds. The agency now deploys its staff on a regular basis to hurricane zones and also provides assistance to law enforcement agencies during events such as the Super Bowl, the baseball All-Star Game and political conventions.

On one level, the engagement of the NGA and the U-2 flights over the Gulf Coast during Katrina were commendable efforts to use America’s vast surveillance powers for the safety and support of its citizens. But at the same time, the incident apparently marked the first time in history that U.S. intelligence agencies created to spy on foreign countries were deployed to collect extensive information on the U.S. “homeland.” Their role during Katrina is just one aspect of an enormous domestic surveillance infrastructure put in place by the Bush administration ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sparked a radical restructuring and expansion of America’s intelligence system. Although the full scope of domestic surveillance under Bush remains elusive, we now know from press accounts, lawsuits, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other top Bush officials’ descriptions and denials that the NSA has been involved in multiple domestic surveillance programs — in apparent violation of federal law — including spying on Americans’ telecommunications and Internet traffic, as well as data mining.

In December 2004, the NSA and the NGA announced the signing of an agreement to share resources and staff and to link their “sources, data holdings, information infrastructure, and exploitation techniques.” The document spelling out the agreement itself is classified. But in a press release the NGA explained that the pact allows “horizontal integration” between the two agencies, defined as “working together from start to finish, using NGA’s ‘eyes’ and NSA ‘ears.’”

The collaboration makes it possible for the agencies to create hybrid intelligence tools that enhance the ability of U.S. forces in combat. By combining intercepts of cellphone calls with overhead imagery gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for example, intelligence analysts can track suspected terrorists or insurgents in Iraq in real time. Last November, NGA director Robert B. Murrett disclosed that it was through such technology that the U.S. military was able to locate and bomb the safe house where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was staying in June 2006. “Eventually, it all comes down to physical location,” he told reporters. When NSA and NGA data are combined, he added, “the multiplier effect is dramatic.”

Nine months prior, during Hurricane Katrina, the NGA’s sophisticated surveillance tools, which can create three-dimensional maps, helped first responders identify hospitals, schools and areas where hazardous materials were stored in the Gulf Coast region. And in an unprecedented move, the NGA distributed thousands of unclassified images of stricken areas, via the Internet, to the public. “People could actually see their houses,” said retired Air Force Gen. James R. Clapper, the NGA director at the time of Katrina. In an interview with Salon before his appointment in April as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Clapper said that the NGA’s work during the hurricane was “the most graphic example in my 40 years of intelligence of coming to the direct aid of people in extreme circumstances.”

The purpose and utility of such intelligence tools in a disaster area, or in a war zone, are clear. But given the Bush administration’s highly secretive, aggressive policies in the war on terror, what’s to stop the NGA and the NSA from collaborating on other types of real-time surveillance at home?

This past Saturday, Congress approved legislation expanding the ability of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without warrants, on telephone calls, e-mail and faxes passing through telecommunications hubs in the United States when the government suspects terrorists may be involved. The legislation, which expands the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, was negotiated between the White House and lawmakers in response to a federal court ruling this summer determining that the NSA’s past eavesdropping had violated the law. Mike McConnell, the retired Navy admiral who was appointed last January as the nation’s second director of national intelligence, told Congress that the ruling drastically reduced the ability of the NSA to track terrorists, while Bush warned that, because of the ruling, the government was “missing a significant amount of foreign intelligence that we should be collecting to protect our country.”

The fear of Democratic leaders that their party might be further accused of being soft on terrorism apparently prompted them to vote for the new FISA legislation — handing new unilateral surveillance powers to the executive branch while significantly diminishing judicial oversight. Civil liberties groups and lawmakers opposed to the legislation believe the changes will make it easier for the government to spy on U.S. citizens, because the more loosely defined FISA statute now allows warrantless surveillance of people communicating with others who are “reasonably believed to be outside the United States.” During the House debate last Saturday night, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., described the bill as an enormous loophole that will grant the attorney general the ability to “wiretap anybody, any place, any time without court review, without any checks and balances.”

President Bush signed the measure into law on Sunday.

The NGA, which has a staff of 14,000 and an estimated budget of about $2.5 billion (the actual amount is classified), buys most of its imagery from commercial satellite vendors, but it also relies on highly classified overhead photography captured by the National Reconnaissance Office’s fleet of military satellites. According to David H. Burpee, the NGA’s director of public affairs, the agency operates under strict oversight rules that ban it from collecting imagery over the United States without a formal request from a “lead” domestic agency coordinating efforts during a disaster. In the case of Katrina, the NGA’s assistance was requested by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. In a statement to Salon, Burpee said that the NGA collects intelligence “in accordance with Constitutional law, federal law, and executive policies such as Executive Order 12333.” (That order, signed in 1981 by President Reagan, includes a mandate for federal agencies to cooperate with the CIA and other intelligence agencies.) Any questions involving domestic operations would have to be directed to the lead agency requesting NGA support, Burpee added.

It is unclear how the latest changes to FISA might affect other intelligence agencies besides the NSA. But the zeal with which McConnell and Bush pursued the new legislation unbridling the NSA — which could presumably tap the NGA for assistance with operations at home, just as it does in the war zones — raises stark questions about the administration’s intentions with domestic intelligence.

A close look at the NSA programs suggests that the Bush administration is casting the widest net possible. To date, President Bush and administration officials have acknowledged only a narrow aspect of domestic spying — referred to as the Terrorist Surveillance Program — which they admitted, in the wake of media reports, included the warrantless wiretapping of phone calls. But in May 2006, USA Today reported on a program that involved the NSA’s gaining access to huge customer databases maintained by AT&T and other telecommunications providers. In another alleged program, discovered by AT&T technician Mark Klein and disclosed in a lawsuit against the telecom provider filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the NSA attached what amounts to an electronic hose to AT&T Internet data lines in San Francisco and other cities and diverted global Internet traffic and phone calls to a special room, where calls and messages were analyzed with powerful computers to find clues to terrorist cells. A Salon report in June 2006 uncovered what appeared to be a nexus for such activity in a secret room at an AT&T facility in St. Louis.

Then, last month, the New York Times disclosed that a dispute in 2003 between the White House and the Justice Department over NSA operations involved a potential fourth program using “computer searches through massive electronic databases” that contained the records of tens of thousands of domestic phone calls and e-mails. McConnell acknowledged multiple programs, albeit without specifics, in a July 31 letter to Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A number of these intelligence activities were authorized in one order” by Bush shortly after 9/11, McConnell wrote. With regard to the administration’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, he added: “This is the only aspect of the NSA activities that can be discussed publicly, because it is the only aspect of those various activities whose existence has been officially acknowledged.” Many FISA experts, such as James Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, have concluded that the NSA was running at least three domestic surveillance programs, including data mining. “I think the TSP was an after-the-fact name given to an activity, or a set of activities, or a whole subset of activities” by the NSA, Dempsey said.

After 9/11, the paradigm for domestic law enforcement shifted radically, by making it the duty of the government to use its intelligence resources to help law enforcement agencies preempt attacks before they happened, beyond the traditional practice of gathering evidence to prove that a crime had already occurred. The idea that the U.S. homeland was now a battleground (or a “theater”) first took hold in 2002, when the Pentagon established the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado to provide command and control of military efforts within U.S. borders. Northcom was given two primary responsibilities: providing military security during national emergencies, including terrorist attacks and natural disasters; and protecting important U.S. military bases in the 50 states. As part of the Pentagon’s domestic security mission, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld created the Counter-Intelligence Field Activity (CIFA) in 2002. But CIFA soon became a weapon against anyone suspected of harboring ill-will against the Bush administration and its policies. CIFA was caught spying on antiwar groups, Quakers and other organizations. Even though Clapper and his boss, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, have expressed concerns about CIFA’s reach, the agency remains an integral part of the Pentagon’s counterterrorism efforts.

The link between Pentagon-driven intelligence operations and the homeland was underscored during the Katrina crisis by the NGA’s deployment to New Orleans of a special vehicle called a Mobile Integrated Geospatial-Intelligence System, or MIGS, which is loaded with equipment that allows NGA analysts to download intelligence from U-2s and U.S. military satellites. The vehicles were first deployed by the NGA in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later to the Gulf Coast. “They’re pretty much the NGA in a Humvee — very military,” said Goolgasian, the NGA official. “But it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb if you’re driving into an urban area” in the United States. As a result, the NGA has painted its domestic vehicles blue and renamed them Domestic MIGS, or DMIGS.

Military, intelligence agency and police work is also coming together in numerous “fusion centers” around the country in a joint program run by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security that has received little public attention. At present, there are 43 current and planned fusion centers in the United States where information from intelligence agencies, the FBI, local police, private sector databases and anonymous tipsters is combined and analyzed by counterterrorism analysts. DHS hopes to create a wide network of such centers that would be tied into the agency’s day-to-day activities, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The project, according to EPIC, “inculcates DHS with enormous domestic surveillance powers and evokes comparisons with the publicly condemned domestic surveillance program of COINTELPRO,” the 1960s program by the FBI aimed at destroying groups on the American political left.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how powerful technologies, when combined with secretive, growing interagency collaboration, could be misused in a domestic context. In recent years many U.S. cities have deployed sophisticated video cameras throughout their downtown areas that track activity 24 hours a day. And U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies now have at their disposal facial recognition software that can identify one person among thousands in a large crowd. Combine that with the awesome eavesdropping power of the NSA and the ability of the NGA to capture live imagery from satellites and UAVs, and the result could be an ability to track any individual, in real time, as he or she moves around.

John Pike, the director of, said the NGA is unlikely to be called upon for surveillance of an individual inside the United States. “NGA imagery is not what you would use to track people,” he said. But as the intelligence infrastructure, including the kinds of local camera-surveillance systems that proved so useful in identifying the perpetrators of the London subway bombings, expands in the United States, it raises the specter of a nationwide surveillance web. “These networks are going to get denser and going to cover more area over time,” Pike said. “At some point in time somebody’s going to drop in an automated face-print recognizer, and then they’re off to the races. Anybody who is currently wanted by the authorities, well, there’s just going to be parts of the country where such a person could not enter.”

The expanding role of U.S. intelligence agencies on the home front raises serious issues, according to Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, the commanding general on the scene in the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina. Last fall, during a national conference on geospatial intelligence, he said, “Most of our capability [in the military] is kept on the classified side because that’s the best way to fight the enemy.” But the situation in the Gulf Coast, as the lines blurred, was complicated by conflicting policy directives. There were some people in government saying, “You’re not going to use the intel stuff on us,” Honoré recalled, while others were saying just the opposite: “Why aren’t you using that intel stuff to tell us what’s going on down there?” And then, there were people sitting back, saying, “They can’t do that inside the United States,” he said, adding, “This is one of the things government has to work out.”

In light of the mounting revelations about the Bush administration’s domestic spying, civil libertarians no doubt strongly agree.

Tim Shorrock is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. You can follow his frequent postings on Twitter at @TimothyS

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