The Truth: The NSA Has Been Working on Domestic Spying for Ten-Plus Years

[graphic: Electronic Frontier Foundation via Flickr]

[graphic: Electronic Frontier Foundation via Flickr]

The yapping of national security conservatives, whether self-identified as Republicans or Democrats, obscures the truth when they denigrate Edward Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong and subsequent attempts at whistleblowing.

The truth is this:

•  Others before Snowden tried to go through so-called chain of command or proper channels to complain about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying, or to refuse the NSA’s efforts to co-opt them or their business. These efforts did not work.

•  They were obstructed, harassed, or punished for their efforts. It did not matter whether they were insiders or outsiders, whistleblowers or plaintiffs, the results were the same for:

•  William Binney,
•  Thomas Drake,
•  Mark Klein,
•  Thomas Tamm,
•  Russell Tice,
•  and J. Kirk Wiebe,
•  as well as Joseph Nacchio.

•  The effort to spy on Americans, violating their privacy and taking their communications content, has been underway since before the Bush administration. (Yes, you read that right: BEFORE the Bush administration.)

•  Three presidents have either failed to stop it or encouraged it (Yes, including Bill Clinton with regard to ECHELON).

•  The program has been growing in physical size for more than a decade.

One document in particular [PDF] described the challenge of the NSA , from which this excerpt is drawn:

Defendant ATT’s Construction of a Call Monitoring Center for the Exclusive Use of the NSA.

81. Within eleven (11) days of the onset of the Bush administration, and at least seven (7) months prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, defendant ATT began development of a center for monitoring long distance calls and internet transmissions and other digital information for the exclusive use of the NSA.

82. The center was put into development by ATT following a proposal by the NSA for the construction and development of a network operations center identical to ATT’s own network operations center located in Bedminster, New Jersey for the exclusive use of the NSA.

83. The NSA proposal was accepted by the ATT sales division and referred to ATT Solutions, an ATT project development division situated in Florham Park, New Jersey.

84. The NSA proposal sought construction of a duplicate ATT Network Operations Center for the exclusive use of the NSA with the capacity to monitor all calls and internet traffic placed on the ATT long distance network, as well as ATT’s wide area, fiber optic, T-1, T-3, T-5 and high speed data networks.

85. Such a data center would also enable the NSA to tap into any call placed on the ATT network and to monitor the contents of all digital information transmitted over the ATT network.

86. The project was described in the ATT sales division documents as calling for the construction of a facility to store and retain data gathered by the NSA from its domestic and foreign intelligence operations but was to be in actuality a duplicate ATT Network Operations Center for the use and possession of the NSA that would give the NSA direct, unlimited, unrestricted and unfettered access to all call information and internet and digital traffic on ATT’s long distance networks.

87. Said data center would enable the NSA to tap into any phone line and to monitor any digital transfer of information on ATT’s networks including voice telephone calls, facsimile transmission and all internet traffic.

88. Such project was in development not later than February 1, 2001, within eleven (11) days of the onset of the Bush Administration.

89. The NSA program was initially conceived at least one year prior to 2001 but had been called off; it was reinstated within 11 days of the entry into office of defendant George W. Bush.

90. The NSA program was code-named Pioneer-Groundbreaker and was also known at ATT Solutions division as GEMS (Groundbreaker Enterprise System).

91. International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) was one of the parties working with ATT and the NSA to develop the monitoring center and IBM personnel participated in meetings with ATT and NSA officials in the development of the monitoring center.

92. Among the purposes of the Pioneer-Groundbreaker project was the storing and monitoring of all phone call information coming across ATT’s networks; by means of this program NSA sought to duplicate all of the phone call information that came across ATT’s networks for real time, contemporaneous analysis or, alternately, for downloading and later use by the NSA.

93. The proposed project was to be a storage entity modeled on ATT’s network operations center in Bedminster, New Jersey, and would have the capability to monitor all data and traffic that came across ATT lines, including ATT traffic and traffic originating from other carriers that used ATT lines or that sent calls to ATT customers.

94. The NSA was seeking to duplicate the ATT network operations center and sought by means of the Pioneer-Groundbreaker program the ability to monitor all traffic coming across ATT’s network.

95. The contact list for the Pioneer-Groundbreaker project consisted of a minimum of 35 ATT employees dedicated in whole or in part to the Pioneer-Groundbreaker program.

96. An ATT Solutions logbook reviewed by counsel confirms the PioneerGroundbreaker project start date of February 1, 2001.

97. The ATT Solutions logbook confirms the dates and transmissions of copies of ATT, IBM and NSA e-mails setting forth the existence of the Pioneer-Groundbreaker program; said e-mails remain in the custody, possession and control of ATT, IBM and NSA.

98. Said logbook was maintained pursuant to ATT Solutions policy in the regular course of business by telecom engineers at ATT Solutions.

99. Counsel have been informed of the foregoing information by several informants who had direct knowledge or who have received direct admissions by ATT personnel as to the foregoing facts.

100. ATT has not denied any of the allegations in the media disclosures of May 11, 2006.

101. Accordingly, defendant carrier ATT was engaged in active and knowing participation and conspiracy to violate 18 U.S.C. 2702, et seq., in concert with the United States not later than February 1, 2001.

The same document — the Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint in the Groundbreaker lawsuit filed 23-JUN-2006 — also describes telecom employees’ awareness of the domestic spying program(s), the employees’ frustration or acceptance of the program(s), and the expectation that “plausible deniability” would be used in the defense of the program(s).

What’s not clear almost exactly seven years later:

•  Did AT&T complete construction of the facility described on behalf of the NSA?

•  Did other telecom firms construct similar facilities for similar use by the NSA?

•  Are these among the “satellite” facilities James Bamford referred to in his WIRED article about the NSA’s Bluffdale UT data center?

•  What exactly was the AT&T facility described supposed to contain — metadata, phonecall content, digital content, or all of these?

These are only a fraction of the unresolved questions that emerged from the Groundbreaker lawsuit alone. Far too many questions are unborn simply because of the secrecy driving suppression of all attempts at oversight.

Given the failed attempts by previous whistleblowers and the long unresolved questions about the NSA’s domestic surveillance, it’s no wonder at all why Edward Snowden felt compelled to flee to Hong Kong in order to be heard. Statistically speaking, staying here and going through the “proper channels” has been a bust.

15 replies
  1. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    A deep response and analysis is due but with the feeling of retching rising I can only say, “FUCK”.

    And as a further deep and meaningful elaboration I would just like to repeat that wih emphasis.

  2. Rayne says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): You mean, *F U C K!!!*

    Yeah. That’s how I feel whenever another fellow American says Snowden is aiding the Russians / Chinese / organized crime / al Qaeda / cheese-eating surrender monkey French / pick a bete-noir-du-jour.

    I feel that way, with the added fillip of gut-wrenching nausea, knowing that fellow Americans working at telecoms, ISPs, IT service providers a la IBM, as well as primary and secondary security contractors, ALL KNOW THIS STUFF. They’ve just rolled over because they like their jobs / like the technology / love the sense of power / are clueless about the First and Fourth Amendment / are utterly unaware of their just-following-orders defense in their aiding crimes against their neighbors.

    Yeah, tens of thousands of Americans know about this stuff in one aspect or another, because they work with it and for it.

    And only a couple handfuls of people stood up against the machine, within and without the system.

    What really makes retch: 538 people and their predecessors, elected to protect and defend the Constitution and the Americans it serves, paid out of our pockets, rolled over and played dead on this with a very small number of exceptions.


    F U C K.

    Then cap it with the sickening knowledge that people like Marcy and the folks at EFF, EPIC, and the ACLU have been actively publishing content about this for as long as they’ve been aware of it, when they aren’t in court about it — yet with each fresh reveal the mainstream media act shocked and surprised, and national security conservatives of any ideology spout their denial.

    There really aren’t words for this.

  3. Frank33 says:

    LinkIn is used by the American Stasi, (from TechDirt). They found some more government projects with some interesting cover names. We are spied on 24/7, and perhaps the whole world is being spied on by these meta-goons.

    +Experienced SIGINT Geospatial-Metadata Analyst/Intelligence Analyst/Linguist


    +Acted as primary liaison for NSA during daily teleconferences with other government partners, exchanging ideas and information to maintain complete and up-to-date situational awareness…

    +Collaborated with partners worldwide to enable efficient, real-time support in a 24/7 shift environment

    +Have worked in both foreign and domestic environments and managed to facilitate smooth exchanges between foreign partners that allowed for maximum efficiency of both parties…

    +Able to filter vast amounts of data and reports to identify key information critical to ongoing projects

    In other news, President Obama claims the terrorist Zazi was thwarted by NSA surveillance. Good luck with that.

  4. Dredd says:

    The ECHELON spy dynamics were aired on 60 Minutes Feb. 27, 2000.

    Whistleblowers interviewed said every square inch of the planet was covered by listening technology.

    Per Moore’s Law computing power doubles about every 18 months.

    So here we are about 10 doublings later (~20 times more computing power) wondering if they can do now what they could do then?

    It seems that for historians the intellectual pursuit would be to point out when the coup took place morphing a democracy into a Wartocracy.

  5. jerryy says:

    @Dredd: Do you mind if I quibble with your statement just a bit?:

    1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 512

    When you double, you double the previous not the original. Ten doublings is roughly 512 times the original amount.

  6. orionATL says:

    some things, some very important things, are becoming crystal clear:

    – the fisa court is completely incompetent/impotent to protect the privacy of an american citizen.

    – the fisa court is a useful only as a means to provide our president and congresscritters with political cover and avoidance of responsibility for repeatedly authorizing and funding the vast spying bureaucracy of today


    the fisa court is useful only because it provides the nsa/fbi/cia cover to continuously grow bigger as well as cover from evaluation and criticim of their spying operations.

    – it is way past time to demand from our political leaders responsibility and accountability, first for authorizing, and then for failing to adequately monitor, the vast domestic spying apparatus they have allowed to arise in the last 15 years.

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    Really, this has been going on since the inception of the NSA in the 1950s.

    Readers should familiarize themselves with the 1970s revelations around NSA projects Shamrock and Minaret.

    Here’s some relevant links to documents:

    Gathering intercepts of foreign electronic communications required an NSA staff of thousands in the 1970s. The Senate Select Committee’s questioning revolved around the use of this capability to target American citizens, particularly dissidents. The NSA’s Project MINARET, created in 1969 to spy on peace groups and black power organizations, was the subject of some focus. At issue were Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Witnesses included the Director of the National Security Agency, Lew Allen. Also testifying were Attorney General Edward Levi and Professor of Law Philip Heymann.

    The NSA, working with British intelligence, begins secretly intercepting and reading millions of telegraph messages between US citizens and international senders and recipients. The clandestine program, called Operation Shamrock and part of a larger global surveillance network collectively known as Echelon (see April 4, 2001 and Before September 11, 2001), begins shortly after the end of World War II, and continues through 1975, when it is exposed by the “Church Committee,” the Senate investigation of illegal activities by US intelligence organizations (see April, 1976). [TELEPOLIS, 7/25/2000] The program actually predates the NSA, originating with the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) then continuing when that turned into NSA (see 1952). [PENSITO REVIEW, 5/13/2006] The program operates in tandem with Project Minaret (see 1967-1975). Together, the two programs spy on both foreign sources and US citizens, especially those considered “unreliable,” such as civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters, and opposition figures such as politicians, diplomats, businessmen, trades union leaders, non-government organizations like Amnesty International, and senior officials of the Catholic Church. The NSA receives the cooperation of such telecommunications firms as Western Union, RCA, and ITT. [TELEPOLIS, 7/25/2000] (Those companies are never required to reveal the extent of their involvement with Shamrock; on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and presidential chief of staff Dick Cheney, in 1975 President Ford extends executive privilege to those companies, precluding them from testifying before Congress.) [PENSITO REVIEW, 5/13/2006]

  8. Rayne says:

    @Jeff Kaye: True, but pre-1995 it was analog. There was the chance of evasion due to physical limitations and cost. After that point the system became digital and networked, the methods of dispersion breeding like rabbits.

    There’s little escape now without the adoption of a sunlight-policy, an approach like that of the open source software community.

    60 years ago if you’d said your refrigerator and your car could disclose to government minders what you ate and when, and where you were driving, you’d have been locked up in a sanitarium or accused of writing dystopic science fiction. A video-phone wrist watch was the pipe dream of Dick Tracy comics my own grandfather read eagerly—not the stuff of American’s daily lives in his time.

    Even 30 years ago we would have thought the profusion of digital devices and the global digital surveillance camera panopticon little more than drug-induced nightmares.

    It’s a totally different world than it was 60 years ago.

    Not to mention the fundamental lack of drive for a Church Committee II.

  9. omphaloscepsis says:


    Schneier’s blog has gotten half a dozen or more comments on the expired certificate today.

    Almost wonder if Bruce had let it lapse intentionally. This story is one of several making the rounds of late:

    Then there were Adi Shamir’s comments at a recent conference:

    ““I think you will see more and more events like this, where a CA [certificate authority] under pressure from a government will behave in strange ways,” he said. “It brings into question whether the basis of security, the PKI infrastructure, is under severe strain.””

  10. Rayne says:

    @omphaloscepsis: I’d checked his mentions, noted the other tweets about his site’s lapsed cert so I didn’t tweet him. Nor did I visit his site.

    The cert process is so bloody iffy. Ugh. Yet another impending crisis.

    Thanks for the links to RubbingAlcohol’s post; the analogy about the opened book is one I tried to make but not successfully. The “Dewey Decimal System” has extremely limited use without the books it indexes, and by books I mean their contents. They want us to believe the library isn’t there, just the cardfile, yet that cardfile they are building in Utah is one motherfecking massive index especially when combined with the invisible “satellites.” Obviously total bullshit.

    The estimated call storage is cheap, too, particularly if they can figure out how to pay for it with horse trading.

  11. wafranklin says:

    10 years my large ass. It has been ongoing since 1920, and rampantly since 1985. I participated in it.

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