The Snowden Ruckus By Richard Sale


A u.s. Senator warned that
“NSA’s potential to violate the privacy of American citizens is unmatched by
any other U.S. intelligence agency.”

“Tons of electronic surveillance equipment at this
moment are interconnected within our domestic and international common carrier
telecommunications systems. Much more is under contract for installation.
Perhaps this equipment is humming away in a semi quiescent state wherein at
present no citizen is targeted but simply scanned…How soon will it be before a
punched card will quietly be dropped to the machine, a card having your
telephone number, my telephone number or the number of one my friends to whom
we will be speaking.”

The sinister statement above was uttered in 1976.

Under the Reagan administration, the NSA could be
authorized to lend its full cryptanalytic support – analysts as well as
computers – to any department agency. By then, the microwaves and the internet
and satellite coverage had transformed human communication. By 1981 there were
domestic satellites in orbit with the capacity of carrying thousands of
circuits.  Each COMSAT bird had 18,000
thousand circuits that record many thousand phone conversations. Literally tons
of billions of words including computer data transfers. Even the mail was being
carried by satellite.

The U.S. Postal Service inaugurated the INTELPOST
whereby anything from blueprints to letters could be transmitted via satellite
and cooperating foreign overseas phone and computer lines. Then came a U.S.
domestic system known as Electronic Computer Originated Mail that carried
messages by satellite anywhere in the country. By 1982, the system was carrying
12 million messages daily and handing 75 billion of letter mail. IBM, AT&T,
Xerox and other major technological giants were joining the program.

The greatest transformation came in U.S. spying and
that same worldwide blanket of microwave signals and satellite intelligence,
the same circuits that gave you your online banking, telegrams and mail had
been diverted to the NSA’s far flung network of dish covered intercept stations,
and, one of these was the Air Force Communications intelligence unit that
picked up fragments of the Soviet Air Defense System near Alaska near Sakhalin
Island. They picked up fragments of on-board chatter from Soviet fighters and beamed
to Elmendorf Air Base. At the time the NSA had twenty three “floor units”
scattered around the world and listening in. A top Secret clearance was only an
entrée into these activities.  (In the
1889 there were 22 secret clearances above Top Secret. That may have changed
and probably have but there used to be such things a Top Secret Umbra or
Special Activities Office clearance were above Top Secret, for example, who have
access to special orbit intelligence, etc. The U.S. Navy Security Group
Activity was another group that monitored the Soviet Navy. There was also the
U.S.  Army’s Intelligence and Security
Command that spied on the Soviet Army in Europe the Soviet Army and
Intelligence command that included Afghanistan. The outfits use people with
high IQs only. The National SIGINT Operations center was set up in the 1970s by
NSA to monitor every crisis event.  It
became known at the intelligence command center of the United States.)

The SIGINT got where it is today by being the most
accurate way of collecting intelligence, a method that avoids the mental
distortions of a HUMINT source as well as the errors of the interpreter of that

So I do not quite understand the uproar of Snowden’s
revelations except it reveals the mainstream media doesn’t read and doesn’t
bother to acquaint itself with the past.

The shock that came with the discovery that the
United States had listened into leaders in 2007 summit should not have come as
a surprise. Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Operations there is something
called the Bureau of Leadership Analysis. 
This group used to focus on such things as acquiring sources within Kaddafi’s
inner circle and such chores. Their task is to develop intimate information
about the meeting participants and then spy o the proceedings.   In Washington in 1987, (I believe) Gorbachev
visited President Reagan, and the CIA hired lip readers to watch every
conversation, and waiters were armed with listening devices, and all the rooms
were bugged. (Lip readers only got about 30 percent of what was said. ) From
sources in the FBI I knew every waiter 
in the Madison or Jefferson Hotels who was working undercover for the
KGB. The Soviets were so good at this electronic eavesdropping that in the mid
1980s, they built a new U.S. Embassy from a detailed model crafted out in the
wastes of Siberia. When it was on the brink of being installed, U.S. spies
found the whole building was in fact a listening device. By that I mean, that
the arch of a doorway was assembled in such a way that it picked up every
conversation. The Soviets seeded the buildings with hordes of bugs that could,
with work be discovered, but we got wise to it and got ourselves a new

So I am quite puzzled at the new uproar about what
seems to me old news.  Perhaps I am not
grasping the story correctly. I would enjoy people setting me straight.

It seems to me that the real menaces of the privacy
of U.S. citizens are marketers who plot every visit to a web site, every
purchase in a store or on line, to make a pattern out of our habits to relieve
them of our money. That is the real and enduring threat.  Richard Sale

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34 Responses to The Snowden Ruckus By Richard Sale

  1. Alba Etie says:

    How credible is Snowden? There appears to be a concerted effort to smear Snowden in the MSM . Its hard for we non experts to judge how ‘big a deal” is the ruckus Snowden has caused. But just on the face of what I understand about PRISM – I find myself going back to first very simple statements – such as hell no to expanded background checks on guns , for one statement .

  2. Thanks Richard for helpful history. The real story is that nothing much has changed when DEM President’s take power and continue the ignorance of former Governors or whatever about the operations of the National Security State. All pervasive now just as ready as ever for the first real USA dictator with a smiling face and folksy style. No white horse needed. As declared by Samuel Huntington in his book the “Soldier and the STATE” [a conclusion with which I disagree] the last bastion of democracy may well be the military. Personally I believe the last bastion is the voter but of course in the USA we have a largely corrupted voting system operated by the STATES.

  3. marcus says:

    The “real and enduring threat…” are marketers? Marketers don’t have the power to take away my freedom and possessions by force of arms. The real advancement here is the ability to store all of this information for future perusal–say political enemies.
    This follows the recent “marketing” campaign by the NSA, “we stopped over 50 terrorist attacks.” I don’t give a damn how many you stopped if you violated the Constitution. The next argument will be how much crime we could stopped by looking for keywords in the nations private conversations and email.
    Totalitarian governments have lower crime rates. Small price to pay to make “us” safer?

  4. Harper says:

    A current sitting US Congressman made an interesting point this week. He noted that the real objective of the NSA tracking has nothing to do with combatting terrorism. He pointed to the Capitol Building and said that the cowardice of the vast majority of Members of Congress is due to the fact that they know that their emails, their phone calls, their credit card accounts and every other form of electronic communication are monitored. The Big Brother state has nothing to do with terrorism. It has everything to do with much more ambitious social engineering. What you raise about the mass data gathering of every citizen who ever used a credit or debit card or opened an email account by marketing agencies is a clear part of the problem. When Google and other outfits ran out of data storage space in 2009, the NSA budgeted $149 million to those “private sector” firms to accelerate the expansion of their storage–so the integrated government/commercial data bases could run on time.

  5. Fred says:

    “It seems to me that the real menaces of the privacy of U.S. citizens are marketers who plot every visit to a web site, every purchase in a store or on line, to make a pattern out of our habits to relieve them of our money. That is the real and enduring threat.”
    Boy ain’t this the truth. It is also one reason corporate America would like Snowden, the NSA and Uncle Sam to take the heat for data mining. The health care industry is another one that will be doing this ‘customer identification’ soon if they are not already.

  6. ISL says:

    I do think you are missing the point (in my view, which probably is different than the ruckus). As in the most recent Bill Moyers we were warned by 1984, Brave New World and many others of the irresistible power to know anything on anyone for future leaders (now past). sure there are ragtag enemies like Al Q, who got lucky once, but as everyone knows the true enemies are the fifth column, with tentacles to the highest level. History show it is impossible to eliminate the fifth column, the key is to control it. Get the goods on potential sources of disharmony and control them. Seductive and irresistable to those with a mandate to rule in the overall name of the greater good. And best part is, there is zero accountability, no sunlight ever.
    Is there a problem with this vision? Our founders thought so, but then they also didn’t think we could keep the enlightened vision for long without new revolutions. They were very smart men who we all honor in very strange ways.
    I recommend Lawrence Lessig:
    who proposes what seems to me a solution that perhaps Jefferson would have approved of.

  7. confusedponderer says:

    Mr. Sale,
    I think the point is that there is a major difference between government on government snooping (where all bets are off), and a routine government surveillance of the population without cause.
    There is a reason why the East Germany security and surveillance state was such an abomination.
    The power relations state-vs-state (equal) and gvt-vs-citizens (unequal) are very different.
    States do have sovereignty, but not an expectation of privacy. Citizens do have a expectation of privacy and a canon of enshrined rights that the government must respect.
    If the government doesn’t respect these rights, citizens are in for a rough ride.
    I think Mr. Snowden rightly points out that in particular the domestic aspects of US surveillance apparatus make the system established a ‘turn-key totalitarian state’.
    All that is needed to make it one is a political will and a few software upgrades.
    And as for the political will – just think what lawmakers were happy to allow for after 9/11. Surveillance can have devastating consequences for individual lives if abused.

  8. no one says:

    Richard, I don’t see where there should be any uproar over 1. Snowden’s “revelation” that the US government listens in on diplomats, leaders, foreign governments, terrorists, etc. As you note, anyone who didn’t know that already (anyone including terrorists) has been living under a rock. 2. Because of 1, over Snowden supposedly compromising operations.
    The uproar that I think is justified is over the US government applying these same techniques to US citizens, including members of the press and elected rep.s – with the sinister insinuation that information obtained would be used to subvert civil rights and other normal democratic processes (think McCarthyism, silencing the free press, fixing elections via blackmail and bribery). After all, what person in power could resist the temptation? Information *is* power.
    Personally, I always assumed the latter activity was taking place. I guess some people wanted to see a happier vision and now that has been dispelled.

  9. JohnH says:

    Hope you paid cash for the guns, else the feds have a record of every purchase you made via the financial transaction. All this ruckus about background checks to prevent the feds from identifying individual gun owners turned out to be pointless–the feds already know.
    Strange that the NRA hasn’t complained…

  10. J.R. Brooks says:

    “So I do not quite understand the uproar of Snowden’s revelations except it reveals the mainstream media doesn’t read and doesn’t bother to acquaint itself with the past.”
    How true.

  11. Kyle_Pearson says:

    The Snowden revelations are:
    A) The extent of his power (all the way up to the president…), as a contracted employee of the U.S. government, and
    B) the extent of the listening, which includes basically everything everyone is transmitting over the Internet, forever.
    He has made his points perfectly clear in the interviews. What of his asserted concerns do you feel are misappropriated, Mr. Sale?

  12. shepherd says:

    I’ve puzzled over this myself. I work a lot for computer security firms, and the general consensus on this stuff is that we already knew about it. I think there’s an assumption about the privacy and security of electronic communications that is simply false. And the level of ignorance is vast. Where Snowden comes in is that suddenly everyone has become aware of something that a much smaller number of us already knew.
    Personally I’ve been surprised at the relative clumsiness of the systems and tactics described. It’s shocking to me that a world leader would be stupid or misinformed enough to send unsecured communications over a wireless hotspot at an Internet café, for example. Then again, the director of the CIA was sending love letters via his personal Gmail account, so there you go…

  13. Tigershark says:

    Richard: Thank you for this piece. It fills in on a more technical scale what I have always thought; I have no privacy. From the days of Hoover’s FBI, parts of the government have always been listening, with ever increasing technical sophistication.
    What really bothers me are the vast numbers of civilian contractors with access to this information. Their security seems to be a joke.

  14. Medicine Man says:

    I’ll confess I have diminishing sympathy for Snowden. As Mr. Sale points out, much of what he has disclosed is not revelatory, and if we’re at all concerned about the distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker, Snowden’s disclosures about US espionage efforts targeting China and Russia are quite damning. It reminds me of the whole imbroglio with Bradley Manning; a naive man with too much access to information.

  15. Chris E says:

    With all due respect I think you are mistaken in one respect. You assume that the ‘marketers’ and the ‘intelligence community’ are separate and disjoint worlds. In reality they are not any longer – therein lies the danger.

  16. seydlitz89 says:

    Edward Snowden is simply the latest in a long line of NSA-related US intelligence officers who have become whistle blowers since the “war on terror” began, which is unprecedented. Check out what William Binney, Thomas Drake, J. Kirk Wiebe, Russ Tice and Edward Loomis have said on the record. Consider the case Jewel vs the NSA . . . IT is all out there and has been for some time . . . That it took Snowden’s actions of desperation to get the public’s attention only shows me how deep in fact the rot goes . . .

  17. oth says:

    Snowden has legs because the media that towed the line for the security state was offended when it was used on them (Associated Press).
    It will go away when they get their pound of flesh.

  18. steve says:

    Certainly agree insofar as the power of marketers v. the power of the government. I fear the government far more than, say,
    Though I would just add that with the involvement of google, microsoft, and other techdoms in the government’s surveillance programs, it is increasingly difficult to separate private interests from government interests. There is money to be made.
    A full response to the capture of the state by corporate interests would be a multi-page post.

  19. steve says:

    If it’s not revelatory, how is it damaging?

  20. Alba Etie says:

    I only use credit cards for fuel,maintence & repairs for my commercial passenger van . The printed receipts are good for tax returns,

  21. Alba Etie says:

    Case in point Gen Hayden is now working for Booz Hamilton setting up the same type of surveillance architecture for the government in the UAE .

  22. optimax says:

    I doubt if Snowden’s leaks will hamper the NSA’s data mining of the world. The revelations themselves serve the purpose of making people aware they are being listened to, manipulating them to self-censor. The wrong joke, a burst of anger, a mere speculation or political organizing will attract the attention of some twerp at the NSA, and set you on the road for getting a FISA warrant to monitor your every move. You will be hassled, at the least, and possibly jailed for your words, that is your thoughts. This is the definition of a totalitarian system, and it functions as a societal control only if you think you are being watched.
    Tom Engelhardt has a good column about the global security state.

  23. Badtux99 says:

    Okay, so I have a bit of a different perspective. I work in Big Data in the Silicon Valley. We (meaning the Valley, and Big Data analytics companies in particular) provided the NSA with the technology they use to store and data-mine these masses of data. A couple of points:
    1) The stated purpose of the mass data collection — to detect patterns of terrorist activity — is utter bunk. The amount of data collected is far too huge to run general analytics of that sort on it. When you have 250 million people tweeting, calling, Skyping, emailing, purchasing with credit cards, writing checks… the amount of storage that it takes to store all this is quite heavily sharded in a way that precludes general analytics upon the whole mass. There’s just too much data. I once estimated that it would take an entire nuclear power station just to power the hard drives for the data itself, nevermind the indexes or the compute servers needed to access the data. It’s possible to find data matching specific criteria — such as “give me everybody who has been called from phone number xxx-yyy-zzzz” — quite rapidly, that’s just a simple map-reduce set loose upon thousands of compute servers each of which is operating upon a shard of the data. But detecting patterns across the entire mass of data? Impossible with current technology.
    2) As implied above, the most practical use for counter-terrorism purposes is to find out who a specific known person has been talking to, where he has been going, and so forth for the purposes of finding out who his co-conspirators are. I.e., you have to go from the possible terrorist person to the data about that person and identify other people based on that person’s connections. It doesn’t work the other way around, it won’t go from non-specific data to identify a possible terrorist. There are too many people with too many connections for the technology to currently do that. Yet. (We’re working on it).
    3) But: The information could be used to identify the habits and interactions of *anybody*. Almost everybody has *something* that they’d prefer not be revealed. Few are angels who’ve lived perfect lives. This is especially true of politicians and activists, who, let us be clear, are generally rather narcissistic people otherwise they wouldn’t be interested in being politicians or activists. The opportunities for blackmail and intimidation of politicians and activists and even *potential* politicians and activists are endless. We got a taste of the potential of this when Clarence Thomas was confronted with the fact that he’d rented Long Dong Silver porno flicks from a XXX-rated video store. When you have serial adulterer family values politicians in Congress… it’s Hoover’s files on steroids.
    And the latter is what the American people are starting to get a little concerned about. They aren’t concerned with their data in the hands of commercial enterprises. Commercial enterprises want their business, and misusing that data would lose their business. But vast unaccountable government agencies in possession of people’s most personal and private interactions? What’s to stop that data from being misused like Hoover’s supposed blackmail files? The laughable “oversight” provided by Congress? The unaccountability is what’s starting to sink in.
    Personally, knowing the limits of the technology and close contacts with people who are former or current NSA, I have little interest in hysterics. I’ve been on their radar for years due to some activities around cryptography technology that I won’t describe here. And, uhm, the worst hasn’t happened. I haven’t been “disappeared” and I haven’t been blackmailed and, for that matter, I have not been blacklisted from the industry, we agree to disagree about certain things but in the end we’re all Americans doing what we believe is honorable and right. For the *present* we appear to still have sufficiently honorable people in the ranks to keep these piles of data from being misused in the way I mention in #3. Still. Depending upon individual honor and the laughable oversight provided by Congress to prevent misuse of this pile of data is like depending upon a screen door to prevent burglary. It may dissuade those not inclined to burglary, but that’s still troubling.

  24. Thanks Badlux99 interesting comment!
    Anyone know if BIGDATA being used to do background investigations for personnel security clearances?

  25. no one says:

    Badtux, agree 100% with your comment. At this point of technological development they can’t do with the data what they say they are doing with it. They are lying. However, they can do what you say is within their range of capabilities.
    My concerns about what they are doing with the data are the same as yours. It has little to do with terrorism and a lot to do with power and control and subversion of our constitutional republic.

  26. shepherd says:

    Thanks for this explanation. I’m not a big data guy, and I don’t know how these systems work, but I’d guess you could do a little more than just track known peoples’ contacts. I’d imagine a keyword search could be a blunt, but useful tool in identifying subjects for further analysis. Or is it too broad?

  27. Medicine Man says:

    I said damning, not damaging; And by damning, I mean it makes me doubt Snowden’s sense of priorities and perspective. I’m sympathetic to the desire to inform the US populace about how and to what extent their government is spying on them. I draw the line at extending foreign governments the same courtesy and start to wonder what he’s thinking.

  28. Fred says:

    The NSA isn’t the only one snooping:
    Who was at Occupy Wall Street/ Right to Life/Abortion, Free the Whales, you name it, somebody can find it. Hope your boss approves as in “ Your company wants a contract with the city, look what your employees are doing”…. Or “so you think your employees doing a good job, look what they are doing in their free time…..” Nothing like facial recognition software to find out which citizens were exercising their God given rights and where. Not that anyone would intimidate a company or its employees or just solicit a bribe via the threat to do so. (not that any of that would ever happen in America).
    Imagine what PM Erdogan could do with a few camers and some software.
    Of course all those cameras, servers and softerware – supposedly prevented a park from getting burned down and ‘prevented’ lots of crimes. Right.
    Then there is the simpler matter of traffic cameras, no problems there, except for the problem with actually seeing your accuser – the computer, and the burden of proof on the defendant after being accused.
    But not to worry, we’ll just shorten the time the light stays yellow, that’s sure to help, um, drive revenue:

  29. Fred says:

    You mean checking to see if any applicant was at Occuppy Wall Street or any other public event/rally/polical protest that doesn’t fit the hiring managers requested profile?

  30. no one says:

    Just to add a little to my last, I have worked with data mining fairly large databases in the healthcare insurance industry; large databases though orders of magnitude smaller than what, apparently, we are talking about re; the NSA.
    Our databases (in an Oracle environment) contained hundreds of millions of medical claims associated with millions of members. Some higher-up got sold on the idea that one could simply purchase data mining software (in this case SAS), slap it on top of the data and, voila!, obtain statistically meaningful patterns of medical service use as related to demographics, medical conditions, etc.
    Even after having SAS send its own dataminer experts out to work with us, it was mission impossible. There was so much pre-mining data scrubbing and normalization that had to occur for the application to work. Even then our data would have to be segmented into much smaller subsets and far more targeted analysis. The tool wasn’t going to just find answers from raw data. You need to start with a hypothesis and then feed in preselected data based on that hypothesis.
    Processing power aside (because it is practically fatal to the concept in and of itself) I can’t even begin to imagine how you would normalize immense data sets from cell phones, internet, credit cards, etc so these different sources could be joined together at the level of a unique individual.
    OTOH, you could start from a known individual’s phone number and see what other numbers have been called. Ditto an IP address. Ditto credit card info. Again, you need to know who your target is.
    That’s why IMO this is a red herring re; identifying terrorists. You’d have to already know who is a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer before you began looking to all the data to flesh out a network. So, we are back to good old fashioned HUMINT and police work. You wouldn’t need everyone’s phone records as a starting point.
    As an aside, the downplaying of Snowden as grandiose because a little fish like him wouldn’t have access to all that data is ridiculous. As a lower level manager in insurance I had access to *all* of the company’s data and all of the medical records of every member; as did the non-managerial analysts that reported to me. It is always the little fish that have the access. That’s what they are there for. To run the queries. The higher ups are the talkers and deal makers. They don’t know the first thing about extracting data.

  31. confusedponderer says:

    ” There was so much … data scrubbing and normalization that had to occur for the application to work”
    Amen to that.
    It is something many folks don’t get when they want to apply technology on data. Normalisation is precondition to efficient processing, be it data mining or, for instance, publishing.
    To do proper normalisation on a large number of data efficiently (preferably automatically) and correctly is something of a black art. It is always something that requires careful attention, and often, time.
    XML, Regex and semantic capturing can do a lot for you, but when people get really creative … eventually you’re happy for everything at least nominally predictable.

  32. robt willmann says:

    Mr. Sale inquires about whether there is a problem with the NSA data collection, wondering whether the real menaces to our privacy are marketers “who plot every visit to a web site, every purchase in a store or on line, to make a pattern out of our habits to relieve them of our money. That is the real and enduring threat.”
    The problem is that the NSA and perhaps other government agencies (including their private contractors) are doing what the corporate marketers are doing plus much more, and a government has a claimed monopoly on force and violence to get you to do what it wants and to prevent you from quickly changing it, whereas the private company has no right to use force against you on its own accord.
    Here are two things worth watching (totalling only about 18 minutes), in which former NSA employees who had much higher positions than Edward Snowden discuss the problem. The first is a short documentary on William Binney (over 30 years at NSA), whose duties included developing collection programs.
    The second video is an interview by the USA Today newspaper of Mr. Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe (over 30 years at NSA), Thomas Drake, and attorney Jesselyn Radack.
    An affidavit by Mr. Binney provided in a lawsuit that is still active in California in pdf form is here, and includes his cv/bio as an exhibit–
    Mr. Binney also complained of massive waste of money and fraud at the NSA, but to no avail.
    No one is asking what other information has been collected and intercepted by the NSA over the years. Are the states’ driver license records there? License plate records? Credit card purchases? Credit histories as compiled by the three main credit reporting agencies? Bank records? FinCen records?
    The FBI made the request to the FISA court for the order to Verizon to release all call information on every subscriber every day to the NSA. But the NSA is part of the Department of Defense. Perhaps the Posse Comitatus Act — to prevent military involvement in law enforcement — has gone the way of all flesh.
    This brief discussion by the Guardian newspaper on metadata shows how it was used to link David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell–

  33. Ingolf says:

    A useful debate on this whole business between Maciej Ceglowski and David Simon.
    They started far apart but in an all too rare example of open-mindedness and intellectual integrity, they closed the gap. As Ceglowski put it on Twitter) “I’m afraid our argument degenerated into a violent agreement at the end.”
    Ceglowski’s argument first:
    “The security state operates as a ratchet. Once you click in a new level of surveillance or intrusiveness, it becomes the new baseline. What was unthinkable yesterday becomes permissible in exceptional cases today, and routine tomorrow. The people who run the American security apparatus are in the overwhelming majority diligent people with a deep concern for civil liberties. But their job is to find creative ways to collect information. And they work within an institution that, because of its secrecy, is fundamentally inimical to democracy and to a free society.”
    David Simon’s response:
    “Reform of the systemic is the only practical hope we have of rationalizing the necessary and continual conflict that will accompany the introduction of every single new technological capability, and a system that is capable of measuring the potentials and risks and then writing, keeping and enforcing the rulebook is the fundamental here. And yet the scare-tactics that accompany this NSA leak are enough to turn potential allies into cynics and take eyes off the legitimate and essential prize.”
    And, finally, their conversation on the comments thread following Simon’s post.
    Skip the essays if time’s short but do read this brief conversation. It’s almost enough to give you hope.

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