As many of you know, I spent most of my life in military intelligence.
Generally, I specialized in electronic intelligence and specifically in the highly specialized sub-category of information warfare. I spent most of my military career in and around the National Security Agency, and in fact used to have an office in the OPS III building at the main facility at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Nearly everything I dealt with was highly classified, and I can't and won't discuss it.
However, there are things I can talk about - and one of those things is privacy and the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution.
There are many, many misconceptions regarding the exact role of NSA in the US Intelligence structure (I almost said "organization", but the US Intelligence Community is anything but organized), and most people, American or otherwise, have little knowledge of what, exactly, NSA does. Popular misconception sees NSA and the people who work there as another version of the CIA, a Cold War relic, only more so - sort of a CIA on steroids and Viagra. The media portrays NSA as manned by steely eyed men in dark suits who command secret and murderous technologies, patrolling the shadowy periphery of civilization with icy determination. NSA "Agents" are invariably portrayed as stone cold killing machines and psychopathic super humans.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
While I'm often reluctant to use the Wikipedia as a reference, in this case the Wiki description of NSA is accurate. For those of you not familiar with the terminology used in the description, I've left the hyperlinks intact:
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) is a cryptologic intelligence agency of the United States government, administered as part of the United States Department of Defense. Created on November 4, 1952, it is responsible for the collection and analysis of foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence, which involves a significant amount of cryptanalysis. It is also responsible for protecting U.S. government communications and information systems from similar agencies elsewhere, which involves a significant amount of cryptography. The NSA has recently been directed to help monitor U.S. federal agency computer networks to protect them against attacks.
The NSA is directed by a lieutenant general or vice admiral. The NSA is a key component of the U.S. Intelligence Community, which is headed by the Director of National Intelligence. The Central Security Service is a co-located agency created to coordinate intelligence activities and co-operation between the NSA and U.S. military cryptanalysis agencies. Contrary to popular impression, the NSA's work is limited to communications intelligence and not field or human intelligence activities. By law the NSA's intelligence gathering is limited to foreign communications, but its work includes some domestic surveillance.
Note the last sentence in the quote above. Also note that NSA is part and parcel of the Department of Defense, not the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security - which means that by Constitutional Law, NSA is bound by the concept of Posse Comitatus.
Posse Comitatus is an integral part of US Law, specifically Title 18 of United States Code, Part I, Chapter 67 - which explicitly prohibits federal military forces (which includes all entities under the purview of the US Department of Defense) from domestic law enforcement, unless specifically authorized by the Constitution and the US Congress.
Posse Comitatus is specifically why federal police and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and US Marshal service fall under the Department of Justice, and why the US Coast Guard (the US maritime law enforcement agency) falls under the Department of Homeland Security (Prior to the creation of HomSec, the USGC fell under the Department of Transportation). Except under very, very specific circumstance, the Department of Defense has no authority over US citizens whatsoever.
When I first joined the US Intelligence community, from the very first day, we had the concept of Posse Comitatus pounded into our heads. We were given examples from history, the Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War, the Red Scare, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate. We were trained in the law and the Constitution, and we were reminded of our sworn oath to the Constitution at every turn. We were given periodic refresher training and required to take professional development courses, and required to sign documents attesting to our understanding of the same. We in the military and within the US Intelligence Community command vast and terrifyingly powerful technologies - and the potential for abuse is simply staggering. But we knew where the line was, and we dared not cross it, ever. This was our sworn duty and our obligation and we took it very, very seriously indeed.
This is not to say that abuses did not occur. But when they did, rarely, they were dealt with swiftly and with the utmost firmness, and those who were convicted of such abuse went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or the Navy Brig in Philadelphia and we looked upon those people with absolute contempt. Those failures were widely circulated within our community as abject examples of what happens when you forget your oath and your duty to the Constitution and the citizens of the United States.
And so, I was appalled, utterly appalled when those strict controls were relaxed out of fear and hysteria in the dark days following 9/11. I was appalled by the short sightedness of Congress, the White House, and the Judiciary when the Patriot Act, the Protect America Act, and the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act were passed and signed into law. Because I know, better than most, what happens when those controls are removed even slightly.
In addition to the changes in law, and at the same time, there were widespread changes occurring within the US Intelligence Community - and one of the most troubling was the sudden and massive influx of new personnel, personnel who were not trained as we were, personnel who had never labored under the restrictions we willingly placed on ourselves, personnel who did not understand what happens when power is unleashed without strict control and oversight, and personnel who do not understand duty and honor and commitment to high ideals. This, combined with the changes in law which allowed the US intelligence apparatus to be directed towards US citizens under the control of one man and one man only, sounded a strident warning bell within the minds of many of us.
Many of us within the community spoke out, but we were assured that adequate controls were in place and that the power of our organizations would never be abused.
I didn't believe it then, and I believe it even less today.
And I'm right.
Yesterday, it has emerged that electronic intelligence operators at NSA have been routinely eavesdropping on overseas communications between American service members, journalists, contractors, aid workers, and various other American citizens in direct violation of their duty, oath, law, and the mission of the National Security Agency. Operators and analysts (there's no such thing as an NSA "Agent") recorded personal conversations between Americans overseas and their families here in the states. They then played these often intimate conversations back for the amusement and titillating entertainment of others within the organization.
Note: the original story was published yesterday by ABC News as an exclusive based on the testimony of two former military cryptologists - people similar in background and training to myself. However, despite ABC's claims of a scoop, the actual allegations have been circulating widely for several years. However, despite knowledge of the problem, Congress failed to become outraged or even interested until ABC made the matter public.
Be that as it may, here's the thing: a number of those conversations were recorded from government maintained or contracted phone lines or satellite and cellular phones links. All government communications systems are flagged with the caveat "Subject to Monitoring" and those of us who use them are aware that our conversations can and are monitored for the purpose of national security. HOWEVER, the recorded conversations in question were not recorded because the monitoring operators felt that operational security had been violated, or because they had indications of a breach in national security - they were recorded and played back because they were entertaining, embarrassing, titillating, dirty, scandalous and because the Jerry Springer Show isn't available within NSA Intercept and Analysis spaces. Even under the relaxed guidelines NSA personnel operate within nowadays, this abuse is a federal crime and a direct violation of the 4th Amendment.
Understand something here, it is imperative that we monitor our own communications circuits as well as other forms of communication. However these vital functions must be under the strictest of controls, with the strictest of oversight, and subject to the highest level of integrity, duty, and honor. Period and no exceptions under any circumstances. Those who cannot immediately see why those controls are necessary simply do not understand either human nature or the vast and terrifying power of the National Security Agency.
I have no doubt, now that this abuse has been exposed, that something will be done. Those operators responsible for the gross violation of civil rights will be found, low level scapegoats named and punished, and we will be given the standard and worthless governmental assurance that it won't happen again.
But it will.
And it will continue to happen until those responsible for allowing it to happen are held strictly accountable for their utter failure of leadership and duty. It will continue to happen until the foolish, short-sighted, misguided, and unconstitutional nonsense of the Patriot Act and the Protect America act is repealed. The Warner Act was repealed in 2008, HOWEVER, President Bush attached a signing statement which said plainly that he did not feel the Executive Branch was bound by the changes enacted by the repeal. That's right - the President of the United States said, in writing and signed by his own hand, that he was not constrained by the law of the United States of America. And both Congress and the America people let him get away with it.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is precisely the problem. Right there and in no uncertain terms. When the Commander In Chief says clearly that he is not bound by law, that sends a very clear message to those who are required to follow his leadership.
Abuses such as those perpetrated by NSA will continue to happen until and unless those who are ultimately responsible are forcibly reminded in no uncertain terms of their duty, oath, and obligation. When a ship founders, not only is the man on the wheel held accountable, but the Captain is always ultimately responsible for the actions of his crew. The President, the Secretary of Defense, and Director of Central Intelligence, and the Director of the National Security Agency need to be held accountable for this abuse.
This is their fault and their failure of duty and their ultimate failure of leadership and oversight.
They set the example - NSA only followed.