Most Americans see NSA leaker Snowden as whistle-blower, not traitor

More Americans see National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower (55 percent), than a traitor (34 percent), according to a poll released Thursday shortly after the former NSA contractor reportedly secured asylum in Russia.

The Quinnipiac University national poll, which had an error margin for plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, found the public mood unchanged from a similar survey on July 10.

“Most American voters think positively of Edward Snowden, but that was before he accepted asylum in Russia,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

By a 56 percent to 51 percent ratio, more Democrats than Republicans said Snowden was a whistle-blower. Slightly more Republicans than Democrats called him a traitor, 38 percent to 36 percent.

The sky darkens for American journalism

The future of the American media is being decided in a military court, writes Chase Madar.

Bradley Manning released hundreds of thousands of government documents and files to Wikileaks, most famous among them the unclassified video Wikileaks dubbed, “Collateral Murder”, a harrowing gun-sight view of an Apache helicopter slaughtering a couple of armed men and a much larger group of civilians on a Baghdad street in July, 2007.

The court-martial of Pfc. Manning, finally underway over three years after his arrest, is likely to cause a great deal of collateral destruction in its own right. In this case the victim will be American journalism.

Contrary to widespread panic, massive leaks of classified material tend to enhance national security as the new information can prevent the kind of reckless, poorly-informed decisions that have squandered so much blood and money, from Southeast Asia to Iraq

The most serious of the charges against Manning is the capital offense of “aiding the enemy.” (Team Obama has made it clear it won’t seek the death penalty, but a life sentence is possible.) The enemy that the prosecution has in mind is not Wikileaks or the global public but Al Qaeda; because this group had access to the internet, the logic goes, they could read Manning’s disclosures just like everyone else.

The government does not have to prove Manning’s conscious intent to help Al Qaeda, but must only meet the squishier standard of proving the defendant had “specific knowledge” that the terrorists might benefit from his cache of documents.

If this charge sticks, it will be a serious blow to American journalism, as it puts all kinds of confidential informants at risk of being capital cases. A soldier in Afghanistan who blogs about the lack of armoured vehicles – a common and very public complaint from the ranks in the Iraq War – could be prosecuted for tipping off the Taliban.

Whoever leaked Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s long cable on the futility of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan could also be conceivably be put away for life, even executed. As Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union has explained, the use of this charge against sources, leakers and whistleblowers – like Bradley Manning – will criminalise a great deal of essential journalism – and not just the kind practiced by Wikileaks and various bloggers.

The Manning prosecution has asserted more than once that they would have pressed the Aiding the Enemy charge even if the private had passed his cache to the New York Times or the Washington Post (as the leaker had attempted).

This jolted the editorial classes, who do not much like imagining themselves as being implicated, however hypothetically, in terrorist acts. Op-eds in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have blasted the Aiding the Enemy charges brought against Manning, explaining that they would not just “chill” but freeze a great deal of essential journalism.

The news media has always relied on leaks of classified material, from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, to the preemptive disclosure of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate holding that Iran had no nuclear weapons program, a transparent attempt by the military brass to block Bush and Cheney from launching a third war.

And contrary to widespread panic, massive leaks of classified material tend to enhance national security as the new information can prevent the kind of reckless, poorly-informed decisions that have squandered so much blood and money, from Southeast Asia to Iraq.

Who is a journalist and who gets to decide?

Aiding the Enemy is of course not the only charge against Private Manning. One of the charges, “wanton publication,” hinges in part on whether Wikileaks is a bona fide journalistic entity. But who gets to decide who is and who isn’t a journalist, and how?

Defense witness Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and expert on press freedom and the internet, provided an answer earlier this month. Benkler, who has published penetrating studies of the 21st century media landscape, took the stand July 11th to address the matter of who is and who isn’t a journalist.

Wikileaks is absolutely a media organization, one perfectly emblematic of the “networked fourth estate”, in which traditional news outlets like the Guardian and Der Spiegel collaborate with smaller non-profit and for-profit entities to produce news coverage. Supporters of Manning found Benkler’s testimony to be lucid, supremely well-informed and compelling – but will it convince Judge Denise Lind?

As for traditional news media, they have been largely AWOL, with the New York Times sending a correspondent to a few hearings, only after a shaming by the newspaper’s public editor. But a handful of independent correspondents, notably Kevin Gostzola of FireDogLake, independent journalist Alexa O’Brien and Bradley Manning staffer Nathan Fuller, as well as court artist Clark Stoeckley – have covered every breath of the legal proceedings.

And even as more established media have leaned heavily on these reporters for all manner of factual and logistical assistance, gracious acknowledgement of the professional debt has not always been forthcoming. Last month the New York Times rather snottily described O’Brien as a mere “activist” before being embarrassed into a correction.

Although smug torpor is Big Media’s default setting, a recent barrage of sucker-punches has shaken the Fourth Estate’s generally cosy partnership with the political class. The Obama administration has named James Rosen of Fox News as a co-conspirator in its case against State Department leaker Stephen Jin-Woo Kim; the government has also announced that it had been sifting through two months of the Associated Press’s phone records to hunt down the source of a leak.

Obama’s poison gift to journalists

Affecting a chastened air, the Obama administration now says it wants to make nice with journalists.   To strike a finer “balance” between press freedom and security, Team Obama has offered to pass a Press Shield Law-a slightly revamped version of the same bill the White House threatened to veto back in 2009. (Senator Obama had been a liberal champion of just such a bill before). This Press Shield Law is intended as conciliatory basket of fruit, sent to the media as an apology for all those investigations.

If the Aiding the Enemy charge sticks, Pfc. Manning faces a possible life sentence – and the outcome might be only slightly less calamitous for American journalism

The government’s gift to journalists is poison, and should be rejected. The Press Shield Law would be more accurately titled the Media Prosecution Enhancement Bludgeon – as Trevor Timm of the Press Freedom Foundation has warned, the statute would override and erase many common-law protections currently enjoyed by reporters.

Just as with our whistleblower protection laws, the statute includes a cavernous carve-out for any leak-based reporting that affects “national security”, a term that is infinitely elastic in the hands of official Washington. (The law would not have “shielded” the Associated Press from the government’s investigation of their phone records, nor would it have protected Fox’s Rosen).

But wait: that’s not all that the new law won’t do! As the law’s primary author, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has crowed, the law would specifically exclude Wikileaks and other internet-based groups that he and his colleagues do not believe to be proper media organizations. (Bear in mind the average age in today’s United States Senate is 61). The language defining who is and who isn’t “a member of the media” is marvellously supple, to be loosened and tightened as the government sees fit.

Meanwhile, the State onslaught against American journalists continues: the dependably conservative Washington DC circuit court has ruled that James Risen of the New York Times must testify as to his sources in a story about CIA disruption of Iran’s nuclear program. (Risen has pledged he will go to jail first).

Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden has casually called Glenn Greenwald a co-conspirator with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. With this roiling in the background, military judge Denise Lind announced on July 18 that she would not dismiss the Aiding the Enemy charge against Bradley Manning but will instead weigh that momentous accusation on its merits.

This is not necessarily a disaster for Manning or for American journalism: if Judge Lind rules against this charge, it will establish common law precedent protecting journalists from similar legal attacks, and Bradley Manning will likely serve (a little) less time in prison. (The Judge’s verdict is expected by next Tuesday, July 30th).

On the other hand, if the Aiding the Enemy charge sticks, Pfc. Manning faces a possible life sentence – and the outcome might be only slightly less calamitous for American journalism.

 

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower.

Follow him on Twitter: @ChMadar

How Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages

Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s own encryption, according to top-secret documents obtained by the Guardian.

The files provided by Edward Snowden illustrate the scale of co-operation between Silicon Valley and the intelligence agencies over the last three years. They also shed new light on the workings of the top-secret Prism program, which was disclosed by the Guardian and the Washington Post last month.

The documents show that:

• Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal;

• The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;

• The company worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide;

• Microsoft also worked with the FBI’s Data Intercept Unit to “understand” potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;

• In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism;

• Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a “team sport”.

The latest NSA revelations further expose the tensions between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration. All the major tech firms are lobbying the government to allow them to disclose more fully the extent and nature of their co-operation with the NSA to meet their customers’ privacy concerns. Privately, tech executives are at pains to distance themselves from claims of collaboration and teamwork given by the NSA documents, and insist the process is driven by legal compulsion.

In a statement, Microsoft said: “When we upgrade or update products we aren’t absolved from the need to comply with existing or future lawful demands.” The company reiterated its argument that it provides customer data “only in response to government demands and we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers”.

In June, the Guardian revealed that the NSA claimed to have “direct access” through the Prism program to the systems of many major internet companies, including Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo.

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time. Targeting US citizens does require an individual warrant, but the NSA is able to collect Americans’ communications without a warrant if the target is a foreign national located overseas.

Since Prism’s existence became public, Microsoft and the other companies listed on the NSA documents as providers have denied all knowledge of the program and insisted that the intelligence agencies do not have back doors into their systems.

Microsoft’s latest marketing campaign, launched in April, emphasizes its commitment to privacy with the slogan: “Your privacy is our priority.”

Similarly, Skype’s privacy policy states: “Skype is committed to respecting your privacy and the confidentiality of your personal data, traffic data and communications content.”

But internal NSA newsletters, marked top secret, suggest the co-operation between the intelligence community and the companies is deep and ongoing.

The latest documents come from the NSA’s Special Source Operations (SSO) division, described by Snowden as the “crown jewel” of the agency. It is responsible for all programs aimed at US communications systems through corporate partnerships such as Prism.

The files show that the NSA became concerned about the interception of encrypted chats on Microsoft’s Outlook.com portal from the moment the company began testing the service in July last year.

Within five months, the documents explain, Microsoft and the FBI had come up with a solution that allowed the NSA to circumvent encryption on Outlook.com chats

A newsletter entry dated 26 December 2012 states: “MS [Microsoft], working with the FBI, developed a surveillance capability to deal” with the issue. “These solutions were successfully tested and went live 12 Dec 2012.”

Two months later, in February this year, Microsoft officially launched the Outlook.com portal.

Another newsletter entry stated that NSA already had pre-encryption access to Outlook email. “For Prism collection against Hotmail, Live, and Outlook.com emails will be unaffected because Prism collects this data prior to encryption.”

Microsoft’s co-operation was not limited to Outlook.com. An entry dated 8 April 2013 describes how the company worked “for many months” with the FBI – which acts as the liaison between the intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley on Prism – to allow Prism access without separate authorization to its cloud storage service SkyDrive.

The document describes how this access “means that analysts will no longer have to make a special request to SSO for this – a process step that many analysts may not have known about”.

The NSA explained that “this new capability will result in a much more complete and timely collection response”. It continued: “This success is the result of the FBI working for many months with Microsoft to get this tasking and collection solution established.”

A separate entry identified another area for collaboration. “The FBI Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) team is working with Microsoft to understand an additional feature in Outlook.com which allows users to create email aliases, which may affect our tasking processes.”

The NSA has devoted substantial efforts in the last two years to work with Microsoft to ensure increased access to Skype, which has an estimated 663 million global users.

One document boasts that Prism monitoring of Skype video production has roughly tripled since a new capability was added on 14 July 2012. “The audio portions of these sessions have been processed correctly all along, but without the accompanying video. Now, analysts will have the complete ‘picture’,” it says.

Eight months before being bought by Microsoft, Skype joined the Prism program in February 2011.

According to the NSA documents, work had begun on smoothly integrating Skype into Prism in November 2010, but it was not until 4 February 2011 that the company was served with a directive to comply signed by the attorney general.

The NSA was able to start tasking Skype communications the following day, and collection began on 6 February. “Feedback indicated that a collected Skype call was very clear and the metadata looked complete,” the document stated, praising the co-operation between NSA teams and the FBI. “Collaborative teamwork was the key to the successful addition of another provider to the Prism system.”

ACLU technology expert Chris Soghoian said the revelations would surprise many Skype users. “In the past, Skype made affirmative promises to users about their inability to perform wiretaps,” he said. “It’s hard to square Microsoft’s secret collaboration with the NSA with its high-profile efforts to compete on privacy with Google.”

The information the NSA collects from Prism is routinely shared with both the FBI and CIA. A 3 August 2012 newsletter describes how the NSA has recently expanded sharing with the other two agencies.

The NSA, the entry reveals, has even automated the sharing of aspects of Prism, using software that “enables our partners to see which selectors [search terms] the National Security Agency has tasked to Prism”.

The document continues:

“The FBI and CIA then can request a copy of Prism collection of any selector…”

As a result, the author notes:

“these two activities underscore the point that Prism is a team sport!”

In its statement to the Guardian, Microsoft said:

We have clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues. First, we take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes.

Second, our compliance team examines all demands very closely, and we reject them if we believe they aren’t valid. Third, we only ever comply with orders about specific accounts or identifiers, and we would not respond to the kind of blanket orders discussed in the press over the past few weeks, as the volumes documented in our most recent disclosure clearly illustrate.

Finally when we upgrade or update products legal obligations may in some circumstances require that we maintain the ability to provide information in response to a law enforcement or national security request. There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely. That’s why we’ve argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues.

In a joint statement, Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of National Intelligence, and Judith Emmel, spokeswoman for the NSA, said:

The articles describe court-ordered surveillance – and a US company’s efforts to comply with these legally mandated requirements. The US operates its programs under a strict oversight regime, with careful monitoring by the courts, Congress and the Director of National Intelligence. Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy.

They added: “In practice, US companies put energy, focus and commitment into consistently protecting the privacy of their customers around the world, while meeting their obligations under the laws of the US and other countries in which they operate.”

The Secret War

INFILTRATION. SABOTAGE. MAYHEM. FOR YEARS FOUR-STAR GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER HAS BEEN BUILDING A SECRET ARMY CAPABLE OF LAUNCHING DEVASTATING CYBERATTACKS. NOW IT’S READY TO UNLEASH HELL.

Inside Fort Meade, Maryland, a top-secret city bustles. Tens of thousands of people move through more than 50 buildings—the city has its own post office, fire department, and police force. But as if designed by Kafka, it sits among a forest of trees, surrounded by electrified fences and heavily armed guards, protected by antitank barriers, monitored by sensitive motion detectors, and watched by rotating cameras. To block any telltale electromagnetic signals from escaping, the inner walls of the buildings are wrapped in protective copper shielding and the one-way windows are embedded with a fine copper mesh. This is the undisputed domain of General Keith Alexander, a man few even in Washington would likely recognize. Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy. A four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world’s largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the US Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army.
Alexander runs the nation’s cyberwar efforts, an empire he has built over the past eight years by insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks requires him to amass more and more authority over the data zipping around the globe. In his telling, the threat is so mind-bogglingly huge that the nation has little option but to eventually put the entire civilian Internet under his protection, requiring tweets and emails to pass through his filters, and putting the kill switch under the government’s forefinger. “What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks,” he said at a recent security conference in Canada. “I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.” In its tightly controlled public relations, the NSA has focused attention on the threat of cyberattack against the US—the vulnerability of critical infrastructure like power plants and water systems, the susceptibility of the military’s command and control structure, the dependence of the economy on the Internet’s smooth functioning. Defense against these threats was the paramount mission trumpeted by NSA brass at congressional hearings and hashed over at security conferences. nsaHQ-590x442But there is a flip side to this equation that is rarely mentioned: The military has for years been developing offensive capabilities, giving it the power not just to defend the US but to assail its foes. Using so-called cyber-kinetic attacks, Alexander and his forces now have the capability to physically destroy an adversary’s equipment and infrastructure, and potentially even to kill. Alexander—who declined to be interviewed for this article—has concluded that such cyberweapons are as crucial to 21st-century warfare as nuclear arms were in the 20th. And he and his cyberwarriors have already launched their first attack. The cyberweapon that came to be known as Stuxnet was created and built by the NSA in partnership with the CIA and Israeli intelligence in the mid-2000s. The first known piece of malware designed to destroy physical equipment, Stuxnet was aimed at Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz. By surreptitiously taking control of an industrial control link known as a Scada (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system, the sophisticated worm was able to damage about a thousand centrifuges used to enrich nuclear material. The success of this sabotage came to light only in June 2010, when the malware spread to outside computers. It was spotted by independent security researchers, who identified telltale signs that the worm was the work of thousands of hours of professional development. Despite headlines around the globe, officials in Washington have never openly acknowledged that the US was behind the attack. It wasn’t until 2012 that anonymous sources within the Obama administration took credit for it in interviews with The New York Times. But Stuxnet is only the beginning. Alexander’s agency has recruited thousands of computer experts, hackers, and engineering PhDs to expand US offensive capabilities in the digital realm. The Pentagon has requested $4.7 billion for “cyberspace operations,” even as the budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies could fall by $4.4 billion. It is pouring millions into cyberdefense contractors. And more attacks may be planned.

“We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets.”

Inside the government, the general is regarded with a mixture of respect and fear, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, another security figure whose tenure spanned multiple presidencies. “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets,” says one former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.” Now 61, Alexander has said he plans to retire in 2014; when he does step down he will leave behind an enduring legacy—a position of far-reaching authority and potentially Strangelovian powers at a time when the distinction between cyberwarfare and conventional warfare is beginning to blur. A recent Pentagon report made that point in dramatic terms. It recommended possible deterrents to a cyberattack on the US. Among the options: launching nuclear weapons.

He may be a four-star Army general, but Alexander more closely resembles a head librarian than George Patton. His face is anemic, his lips a neutral horizontal line. Bald halfway back, he has hair the color of strong tea that turns gray on the sides, where it is cut close to the skin, more schoolboy than boot camp. For a time he wore large rimless glasses that seemed to swallow his eyes. Some combat types had a derisive nickname for him: Alexander the Geek. Born in 1951, the third of five children, Alexander was raised in the small upstate New York hamlet of Onondaga Hill, a suburb of Syracuse. He tossed papers for the Syracuse Post-Standard and ran track at Westhill High School while his father, a former Marine private, was involved in local Republican politics. It was 1970, Richard Nixon was president, and most of the country had by then begun to see the war in Vietnam as a disaster. But Alexander had been accepted at West Point, joining a class that included two other future four-star generals, David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey. Alexander would never get the chance to serve in Vietnam. Just as he stepped off the bus at West Point, the ground war finally began winding down. In April 1974, just before graduation, he married his high school classmate Deborah Lynn Douglas, who grew up two doors away in Onondaga Hill. The fighting in Vietnam was over, but the Cold War was still bubbling, and Alexander focused his career on the solitary, rarefied world of signals intelligence, bouncing from secret NSA base to secret NSA base, mostly in the US and Germany. He proved a competent administrator, carrying out assignments and adapting to the rapidly changing high tech environment. Along the way he picked up masters degrees in electronic warfare, physics, national security strategy, and business administration. As a result, he quickly rose up the military intelligence ranks, where expertise in advanced technology was at a premium. In 2001, Alexander was a one-star general in charge of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, the military’s worldwide network of 10,700 spies and eavesdroppers. In March of that year he told his hometown Syracuse newspaper that his job was to discover threats to the country. “We have to stay out in front of our adversary,” Alexander said. “It’s a chess game, and you don’t want to lose this one.” But just six months later, Alexander and the rest of the American intelligence community suffered a devastating defeat when they were surprised by the attacks on 9/11. Following the assault, he ordered his Army intercept operators to begin illegally monitoring the phone calls and email of American citizens who had nothing to do with terrorism, including intimate calls between journalists and their spouses. Congress later gave retroactive immunity to the telecoms that assisted the government. In 2003 Alexander, a favorite of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was named the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, the service’s most senior intelligence position. Among the units under his command were the military intelligence teams involved in the human rights abuses at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Two years later, Rumsfeld appointed Alexander—now a three-star general—director of the NSA, where he oversaw the illegal, warrantless wiretapping program while deceiving members of the House Intelligence Committee. In a publicly released letter to Alexander shortly after The New York Times exposed the program, US representative Rush Holt, a member of the committee, angrily took him to task for not being forthcoming about the wiretapping: “Your responses make a mockery of congressional oversight.” Alexander also proved to be militant about secrecy. In 2005 a senior agency employee named Thomas Drake allegedly gave information to The Baltimore Sun showing that a publicly discussed program known as Trailblazer was millions of dollars overbudget, behind schedule, possibly illegal, and a serious threat to privacy. In response, federal prosecutors charged Drake with 10 felony counts, including retaining classified documents and making false statements. He faced up to 35 years in prison—despite the fact that all of the information Drake was alleged to have leaked was not only unclassified and already in the public domain but in fact had been placed there by NSA and Pentagon officials themselves. (As a longtime chronicler of the NSA, I served as a consultant for Drake’s defense team. The investigation went on for four years, after which Drake received no jail time or fine. The judge, Richard D. Bennett, excoriated the prosecutor and NSA officials for dragging their feet. “I find that unconscionable. Unconscionable,” he said during a hearing in 2011. “That’s four years of hell that a citizen goes through. It was not proper. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”) But while the powers that be were pressing for Drake’s imprisonment, a much more serious challenge was emerging. Stuxnet, the cyberweapon used to attack the Iranian facility in Natanz, was supposed to be untraceable, leaving no return address should the Iranians discover it. Citing anonymous Obama administration officials, The New York Times reported that the malware began replicating itself and migrating to computers in other countries. Cyber­security detectives were thus able to detect and analyze it. By the summer of 2010 some were pointing fingers at the US. Natanz is a small, dusty town in central Iran known for its plump pears and the burial vault of the 13th-century Sufi sheikh Abd al-Samad. The Natanz nuclear enrichment plant is a vault of a different kind. Tucked in the shadows of the Karkas Mountains, most of it lies deep underground and surrounded by concrete walls 8 feet thick, with another layer of concrete for added security. Its bulbous concrete roof rests beneath more than 70 feet of packed earth. Contained within the bombproof structure are halls the size of soccer pitches, designed to hold thousands of tall, narrow centrifuges. The machines are linked in long cascades that look like tacky decorations from a ’70s discotheque. To work properly, the centrifuges need strong, lightweight, well-balanced rotors and high-speed bearings. Spin these rotors too slowly and the critical U-235 molecules inside fail to separate; spin them too quickly and the machines self-destruct and may even explode. The operation is so delicate that the computers controlling the rotors’ movement are isolated from the Internet by a so-called air gap that prevents exposure to viruses and other malware. In 2006, according to Iran Human Rights Voice, As

NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

The disclosure is likely to reignite longstanding debates in the US over the proper extent of the government’s domestic spying powers.

nsaHQ-590x442Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama.

The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

The Guardian approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Department of Justice for comment in advance of publication on Wednesday. All declined. The agencies were also offered the opportunity to raise specific security concerns regarding the publication of the court order.

The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI’s request for its customers’ records, or the court order itself.

“We decline comment,” said Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman.

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson, compels Verizon to produce to the NSA electronic copies of “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls”.

The order directs Verizon to “continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this order”. It specifies that the records to be produced include “session identifying information”, such as “originating and terminating number”, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and “comprehensive communication routing information”.

The information is classed as “metadata”, or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such “metadata” is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.

While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively.

It is not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with such an order, although previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks. It is also unclear from the leaked document whether the three-month order was a one-off, or the latest in a series of similar orders.

The court order appears to explain the numerous cryptic public warnings by two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, about the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance activities.

For roughly two years, the two Democrats have been stridently advising the public that the US government is relying on “secret legal interpretations” to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be “stunned” to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.

Because those activities are classified, the senators, both members of the Senate intelligence committee, have been prevented from specifying which domestic surveillance programs they find so alarming. But the information they have been able to disclose in their public warnings perfectly tracks both the specific law cited by the April 25 court order as well as the vast scope of record-gathering it authorized.

Julian Sanchez, a surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, explained: “We’ve certainly seen the government increasingly strain the bounds of ‘relevance’ to collect large numbers of records at once — everyone at one or two degrees of separation from a target — but vacuuming all metadata up indiscriminately would be an extraordinary repudiation of any pretence of constraint or particularized suspicion.” The April order requested by the FBI and NSA does precisely that.

The law on which the order explicitly relies is the so-called “business records” provision of the Patriot Act, 50 USC section 1861. That is the provision which Wyden and Udall have repeatedly cited when warning the public of what they believe is the Obama administration’s extreme interpretation of the law to engage in excessive domestic surveillance.

In a letter to attorney general Eric Holder last year, they argued that “there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”

“We believe,” they wrote, “that most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted” the “business records” provision of the Patriot Act.

Privacy advocates have long warned that allowing the government to collect and store unlimited “metadata” is a highly invasive form of surveillance of citizens’ communications activities. Those records enable the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication.

Such metadata is what the US government has long attempted to obtain in order to discover an individual’s network of associations and communication patterns. The request for the bulk collection of all Verizon domestic telephone records indicates that the agency is continuing some version of the data-mining program begun by the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by President Bush on 4 October 2001, implemented a bulk collection program of domestic telephone, internet and email records. A furore erupted in 2006 when USA Today reported that the NSA had “been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth” and was “using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.” Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program.

These recent events reflect how profoundly the NSA’s mission has transformed from an agency exclusively devoted to foreign intelligence gathering, into one that focuses increasingly on domestic communications. A 30-year employee of the NSA, William Binney, resigned from the agency shortly after 9/11 in protest at the agency’s focus on domestic activities.

In the mid-1970s, Congress, for the first time, investigated the surveillance activities of the US government. Back then, the mandate of the NSA was that it would never direct its surveillance apparatus domestically.

At the conclusion of that investigation, Frank Church, the Democratic senator from Idaho who chaired the investigative committee, warned: “The NSA’s 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.”

Additional reporting by Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman

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