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Whistleblower Levels Shocking Allegations at Bush's Spying Programs

It seems Bush's lust for spying went so far as to target reporters, and even the senator tasked with overseeing U.S. intelligence.
 
 
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On Jan. 21, former U.S. intelligence official Russell Tice appeared on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermannn" and broke a sobering bit of news that, sandwiched between Obama's inauguration and sweeping executive orders, went largely ignored by the media: Under the Bush administration's notorious warrantless spying program, not only did the NSA eavesdrop on millions of Americans, it turns out it specifically targeted "U.S. news organizations, reporters and journalists."

As Olbermannn put it, "non-terrorist Americans, if you will."

"It has taken less than 24 hours after the Bush presidency ended for a former analyst with the National Security Agency to come forward to reveal new allegations about how this nation was spied on by its by its own government," Olbermannn said on Wednesday night.

"Russell Tice has already stood up for truth before this evening as one source for the revelation in 2005 by the New York Times that President Bush was eavesdropping on American citizens without warrants … tonight, the next chapter for Mr. Tice -- a chapter he feared to reveal while George Bush occupied the Oval Office."

The contents of the exclusive interview, if not surprising, were chilling nonetheless. Tice, who was fired from the NSA in May 2005, discussed how part of his job had been to monitor information flow among organizations that were expressly not of interest, for the ostensible purpose of flagging and filtering them out.

"… In the world that I was in," he said, "(so) as to not harpoon the wrong people … we looked at organizations, supposedly, so that we would not target them. So that we knew where they were so as not to have a problem with them." But, "what I was finding out, though, is that collection on those organizations was 24/7, you know, 365 days a year -- and it made no sense."

Turns out it was a bait and switch, in Olbermann's words, in which the "discard" pile was actually the "save" pile.

Word of the interview made its way around the blogosphere. Emptywheel's Marcy Wheeler immediately spelled out some of the implications. "First, Tice's description of the program confirms everything we have surmised about the program," she wrote.

The program:

  • Established the means to collect all American communications.
  • Analyzed meta-data to select a smaller subset of communications to tap further.
  • Conducted human analysis of those messages.

That is, the Bush administration used meta-data (things, like length of phone call, that have nothing to do with terrorism) to pick which communications to actually open and read, and then they opened and read them.

And of course, everyone's communications -- everyone's -- were included in the totality of communications that might be tapped.

Despite the fact that the NSA scandal has been one of the biggest stories of the past few years, the story made no headlines the next day, including no mention in the New York Times, which broke the spying story to begin with (albeit one year after it first caught wind of it). In a week that saw orders from the new Obama White House to close Guantanamo and end the policy of torture, perhaps it is not surprising that this interview did not make headlines -- and indeed, as Wheeler pointed out, the news here is merely a confirmation of what others have long assumed.

But the implications bear repeating: Tice said, despite the Bush administration's claims to the contrary, "the National Security Agency had access to all Americans' communications, faxes, phone calls and their computer communications … and it didn't mater whether you were in Kansas in the middle of the country and you never made any … foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications."

Granted, not all the information was processed by human hands. Sheer volume would make that impossible. ("Americans tend to be a chatty group," said Tice.) And while Tice said he was not sure what had become of the information that was gathered, he did say that it was probably stored in a database, one that still exists today.

***

Olbermann points out this is not the first time Tice has stuck his neck out to call out the criminal activity of the Bush administration. On Dec. 18, 2005, two days after theTimes story was published, Tice sent a letter to both the Senate and House intelligence committees, in which he characterized the NSA spying as akin to violating a sacred oath:

"As a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) officer, it is continually drilled into us that the very first law chiseled in the SIGINT equivalent of the 10 Commandments (USSID-18) is that 'Thou shall not spy on American persons without a court order from FISA.' This law is continually drilled into each NSA intelligence officer throughout his or her career. The very people that lead the National Security Agency have violated this holy edict of SIGINT. ...
"In addition to knowing this fundamental commandment of not violating the civil rights of Americans, intelligence officers are required to take an oath to protect the United States Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic. It is with my oath as a U.S. intelligence officer weighing heavy on my mind that I wish to report to Congress acts that I believe are unlawful and unconstitutional. The freedom of the American people cannot be protected when our constitutional liberties are ignored and our nation has decayed into a police state."

In subsequent interviews, including one on Jan. 3, 2006, with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Tice repeatedly stressed the illegality of the program, while also maintaining that he could only say so much. "I don't want to walk out of here and end up in an FBI interrogation room," he told Goodman.

The backlash against Tice was harsh. He was assailed by right-wing pundits, who called him the real criminal. And others saw his coming forward as suspect -- after all, he had been officially fired, by his own account, not because of his investigation of the wiretapping, but due to an earlier controversy over his time at the Defense Intelligence Agency in which he made accusations about two FBI agents being possible spies. Thus, he was seen as holding a grudge.

("What would you say to those who say you are speaking out now simply because you are disgruntled?" asked Goodman, to which Tice replied: "Well, I guess that's a valid argument. You know, I was fired. But, you know, I've kind of held my tongue for a long time now, and basically, you know, I have known these things have been going on for a while … whether you think this is retaliation or not, I have something important to tell Congress, and I think they need to hear it.")

In the end, Tice's hopes that he could provide testimony for Congress ultimately amounted to very little.

***

The night after Tice broke news on "Countdown," he appeared on the program again, this time followed by James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and the co-author (with Eric Litchblau) of the NSA spying story. But Risen was not there to discuss the spying program from an expert perspective. He was there as one of its possible targets.

Risen, who last year was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury to try to get him to reveal his confidential sources for his book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, told Keith Olbermann that although he did not know which agency had him under surveillance, "what I know for a fact is that the Bush administration got my phone records … we know for a fact that they showed my phone records to other people in the federal grand jury, and we have asked the court to investigate that."

Risen joins the ranks of other top reporters who were reportedly spied on by the Bush administration -- including CNN's Christiane Amanpour and theNew Yorker's Lawrence Wright -- but he says he believes that the point of the program was not so much to intimidate journalists who exposed questionable government policies -- "we have a large organization to support us … whistle-blowers don't have that" -- but rather their sources. The effect, he said, is to "frighten people in the government from talking … to have a chilling effect on potential whistle-blowers in the government to make them realize that there's a Big Brother out there that will get them if they step out of line."

One such whistle-blower, who was recently revealed to be the man who truly blew the lid off the Bush administration's wiretapping program, is former Department of Justice official Thomas Tamm, a prime source of Eric Litchblau's. Tamm was instrumental in breaking the story, and although he has remained largely anonymous until now, his life has been turned upside down ever since. In a cover story for Newsweeklast month, "Is He a Hero or a Criminal?", Michael Isikoff reported how early one morning in August 2007, his house was raided by 18 FBI agents who took his computer, his kids' laptops, books, etc. Tamm's college-age son, Terry, "was escorted downstairs, where, he says, the agents arranged him, his younger sister and his mother around the kitchen table and questioned them about their father."

After the raid, Justice Department prosecutors encouraged Tamm to plead guilty to a felony for disclosing classified information -- an offer he refused. More recently, Agent (Jason) Lawless, a former prosecutor from Tennessee, has been methodically tracking down Tamm's friends and former colleagues. The agent and a partner have asked questions about Tamm's associates and political meetings he might have attended, apparently looking for clues about his motivations for going to the press, according to three of those interviewed.

In the meantime, Tamm lives in a perpetual state of limbo, uncertain whether he's going to be arrested at any moment. He could be charged with violating two laws, one concerning the disclosure of information harmful to "the national defense," the other involving "communications intelligence." Both carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison. "This has been devastating to him," says Jeffrey Taylor, an old law-school friend of Tamm's. "It's just been hanging over his head for such a long time … Sometimes Tom will just zone out. It's like he goes off in a special place. He's sort of consumed with this because he doesn't know where it's going."

***

In its first week, the Obama administration has been silent for now about cases like Tamm's or Tice's. (Tice told Olbermann that he has volunteered his service to the Obama team but that "they never really utilized me.") Meanwhile, Friday morning still saw little in the news about the latest spying disclosures, apart from various blog posts, a story on Wired's newsblog and pieces in scattered local and alternative media. Among civil liberties organizations, even groups like the ACLU and Amnesty International have been (justifiably) focused on the news out of the Obama camp regarding Guantanamo and have not released statements on it.

But one thing remains clear: As we enter the Obama era, there are many unanswered questions about the full extent of the domestic spying that took place under Bush, including whether it is still going on. "The NSA has far greater capability than it's ever made public," Risen told Olbermann on Thursday night. Among its endless list of things to do, the Obama administration must take a close, hard look at the NSA's activities -- activities that have already led to heated dissent in the ranks of his supporters who decried Obama's support for the Protect America Act and his support, in the end, on telecom immunity.

As far as what is already in the government's hands, said Tice, "this [information] could sit there for 10 years and then potentially it marries up with something else, and 10 years from now they get put on a no-fly list and they, of course, won't have a clue why."