(Photo Bandido of Oz / flickr)
Back in 2001, the Defense Department was briefed about a massive data mining system that officials said was aimed at identifying alleged terrorists who lived and communicated with people in the United States.
The new intelligence program granted traditional law enforcement agencies as well as the FBI and the CIA the authority to conduct what was then referred to as "suspicionless surveillance" of American citizens.
"Suspicionless Surveillance" was developed by the Pentagon's controversial Total Information Awareness department, led by Adm. John Poindexter, the former national security adviser, who secretly sold weapons to Middle Eastern terrorists in the 1980s during the Iran-Contra affair and was convicted of a felony for lying to Congress and destroying evidence. The convictions were later overturned on appeal.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, had referred to Poindexter as "the architect of a program to extend surveillance of private databases."
Rotenberg said Poindexter was involved in a 1984 policy directive criticized by civil liberties groups and lawmakers, who said it would hand the National Security Agency control over privately held information. The directive was voided with the passage of the 1987 Computer Security Act.
But in October 2001, Poindexter resurrected his government-operated data mining proposals. It was then that he introduced TIA to the Department of Defense, around the time Bush had signed an executive order authorizing domestic surveillance under a program known as the President's Surveillance Program, according to a report issued in July by inspectors general of five government agencies.
In the summer of 2002, a public outcry over the revelation that JetBlue Airways turned over the names and addresses of 1.5 million passengers to the Pentagon so the agency could create a database about Americans' travel patterns, and also authorized the agency to monitor credit card transactions, led Congress to withhold tens of millions of dollars in funding for the project in early 2003.
But the program would have been able to continue to operate if President Bush believed that dismantling it would endanger national security, which is what former NSA officials familiar with the program allege Bush did after the program was publicly dismantled.
The "suspicionless surveillance" program was somewhat different from the warrantless wiretaps President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to conduct after 9/11. "Suspicionless surveillance" â€“ unveiled in a Pentagon press release in 2002 â€“ was broader in scope: it gave law enforcement the authority to mine commercial and other private data on American citizens, listening in on phone calls, monitoring emails, inspecting credit card and bank transactions of thousands of individuals on the off-chance that one might be a terrorist â€“ and all without any judicial oversight.
During a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in April 2003, Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies said, "There are two fundamentally different approaches that can be used to identify and locate dangerous individuals in the United States and their sources of financing.
"The approach, which has generated the most discussion, interest, and, apparently, resources is different forms of data-mining: the â€˜suspicionless surveillance' of large groups of people, whether through linking computerized databases, programs like Total Information Awareness, pattern analysis, the creation of a â€˜terrorist profile,' or surveillance of an entire group."
But protests by civil liberty and privacy groups, as well as apprehension by Republican and Democratic lawmakers over what amounted to domestic spying, led Congress to shut down the surveillance program in 2003.
It now appears that shortly after Congress told the White House it was trampling on individual privacy rights with its "suspicionless surveillance," several current and former NSA officials said in interviews, President Bush continued to secretly authorize the program.
Poindexter said in a resignation letter in September 2003 that his goal in developing the program was to identify "patterns of transactions that are indicative of terrorist planning and preparations."
"We never contemplated spying and saving data on Americans," Poindexter wrote in his resignation letter.
But that's exactly what happened during the early stages of the program and, according to sources, continued after announcements were made that the program had been dismantled. The Bush administration acknowledged that its aggressive campaign to unmask terrorists living in the US would be hindered if it were required to avoid spying on average American citizens.
Poindexter's plan proposed to use state-of-the-art computer systems at the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to secretly monitor emails, credit card transactions, phone records and bank statements of hundreds of thousands of American citizens on the chance that they might be associated with, or sympathetic to, terrorists.
Poindexter, who was the director of the Information Awareness Office in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, came up with the idea after 9/11 and discussed it over lunch with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, news reports said at the time.
Despite assurances that the federal government would not misuse the program, the JetBlue revelation proved that the administration was willing to sacrifice individual privacy rights in the name of national security. JetBlue officials said the airline was pressured by the Pentagon to hand over its private customer data to a Pentagon contractor named Torch Concepts. The contractor then bought demographic information on nearly half of the passengers from Acxicom, a marketing company. Torch then put together a study and posted it on the Internet.
In its report, Torch said that the government would have to monitor an unknown number of passengers to "find a needle in a haystack without knowing what the needle looks like."
At least one lawmaker had raised concerns at the time that implementing such a program could be illegal.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) told Rumsfeld during a public hearing in 2003 that the Total Information Awareness program "not only raises serious privacy concerns [but] might also be illegal and possibly unconstitutional."
Report Critical of NSA Program
The unclassified report prepared by inspectors general of five federal agencies said George W. Bush justified his warrantless wiretapping by relying on Justice Department attorney John Yoo's theories of unlimited presidential wartime powers, and started the spying operation even before Yoo issued a formal opinion, a government investigation discovered.
Essentially, President Bush took it upon himself to ignore the clear requirement of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that all domestic intelligence-related electronic spying must have a warrant from a secret federal court, not just presidential approval. Illegal wiretapping is a felony under federal law.
The July 10 report didn't identify any specific terrorist attack that was thwarted by what was known as the President's Surveillance Program (PSP), although Bush has claimed publicly that his warrantless wiretapping "helped detect and prevent terrorist attacks on our own country."
The inspectors' general report also makes clear that the full PSP was more expansive than the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the warrantless wiretapping that was revealed by The New York Times in December 2005. The TSP involved intercepting calls between the United States and overseas if one party was suspected of links to al-Qaeda or to an al-Qaeda-affiliated group.
Though the undisclosed elements of the PSP remain highly classified, the report gave some hints to its scope by noting that the program originated from a post-9/11 White House request to NSA Director Michael Hayden to consider "what he might do with more authority."
Hayden then "put together information on what was operationally useful and technologically feasible," the report said. "The information formed the basis for the PSP."
In other words, the PSP stretched the limits of what the NSA could accomplish with its extraordinary capabilities to collect and analyze electronic communications around the world. Various journalistic accounts have suggested that Bush's spying program crossed the line from zeroing in on specific surveillance targets to "data-mining" a broad spectrum of electronic communications.
Suggesting that the government gathered information on many innocent people, the inspectors general stated that "the collection activities pursued under the PSP ... involved unprecedented collection activities. We believe the retention and use by IC [intelligence community] organizations of information collected under the PSP ... should be carefully monitored."