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Big Brother May Be Spying on You

CBN News (Christian Broadcasting Network)

27 February 2000

By Erin Zimmerman and Dale Hurd

-- Is your privacy in jeopardy? CBN News investigates one U.S. government agency that is secretly keeping tabs on American citizens.

A Russian spy made headlines last December after he was found listening in on conversations through a bug planted at the U.S. State Department, and there are renewed concerns about Chinese spying.

But the government is using methods that are far more sophisticated -- and far more secret -- to capture everything from phone calls to e-mails to faxes. And there's growing evidence that they may be using it, not just on terrorists, but on you.

"I think that people need to understand that we’re entering an age of a new America, and we’re not going to like it," says privacy expert Lisa Dean of the Free Congress Foundation. "This is not a society where what we say, or what we do, or what we tell people is kept a secret."

"And people's conversations are being eavesdropped on in violation of the 4th amendment," says Greg Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If Americans don't wake up to their diminishing window of privacy, as it were, pretty soon, there's not going to be any left."

In a high-tech world that now contains 40 million cell phones, 14 million fax machines, and 180 million computers, just how private is your communication? The answer may surprise you.

"I don’t think we have a whole lot of privacy left in America," says Dean. "We think we do, but we really don’t."

Big Brother may not be watching yet ... but he may be listening to your phone calls and reading your e-mail, all in the name of national security.

"Secretary of Defense William Cohen has said publicly, the American people need to decide how much privacy they’re willing to give up in favor of more security," says Dean. "Well, the answer to that should be none."

And as Americans move further into the information age, Big Brother is rapidly becoming public enemy number one.

"The Wall Street Journal conducted a poll sometime in November of last year and asked Americans what they feared most in the next century. Terrorism? No. Crime? No. The thing that concerned most Americans was the loss of personal privacy."

At the center of the firestorm over electronic privacy is the National Security Agency, headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland. With a global staff of around 38,000 the NSA is larger than the FBI and the CIA combined.

"The NSA has two missions: one is foreign intelligence gathering, and the other one is creation of codes to protect U.S. diplomatic and military secrets," says former NSA analyst Wayne Madsen. "Historically, that’s been NSA’s two major functions. Unfortunately, with the end of the Cold War, they ’re now looking into other areas."

These other areas may include your own home, through a global eavesdropping system known as ECHELON.

"What ECHELON basically is is a system that, based on key words in a conversation or key words in an e-mail -- it takes those key words of interest, which are basically pre-programmed in something called a dictionary."

According to Madsen, this dictionary may be searching your phone calls, faxes, and e-mails to sniff out terrorists, hackers, and other potential threats. Privacy experts charge that even accidental use of these so-called key words could put you under the sharp ears of the NSA.

"I think the NSA would say, 'I wonder what they’re up to,' and I think there might be increased monitoring of their communications."

Most of the public information about ECHELON is based on a report commissioned by the European parliament.

Published last April, the report charges that the NSA's global spy bases, like the one at Menwith Hill in England, routinely intercept around two-million communications every hour.

"So basically, you can think of it as a giant drift net that captures everything," says Madsen.

The countries casting this global drift net are members of what's known as the UKUSA alliance: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. According to the EU report, this five-pronged partnership also forms the legal loophole that allows the NSA to spy on its own citizens.

"The NSA has no jurisdiction here in this country," says Dean. "So it can’t legally listen in on Americans’ phone conversations or electronic communications. However, according to the European parliament, what it’s doing is getting its British counterparts, or Australian counterparts, and so on, to do their dirty work."

For example, if you send an e-mail message from New York to Los Angeles, it may be routed through Canada or the UK before reaching its destination. And once a message travels outside U.S. borders, it's fair game for ECHELON's web.

Most Americans got their first glimpse of the super-secret agency in the 1998 action film Enemy of the State. Former attorney and journalist James Bamford wrote The Puzzle Palace, considered to be the definitive work on the NSA. And although film producers relied heavily on his best-selling book to make Enemy of the State, Bamford says they used more than a little creative license.

"The NSA doesn't possibly have the ability to do that," says Bamford. "There are too many inaccuracies. NSA doesn't control imagery satellites, photo satellites -- you don't pick up the phone and say, 'I want a satellite on the corner of Wisconsin and M Street, and they don't go into hotel rooms -- they can't do hotel rooms, so there were a lot of problems I had with it."

Meanwhile, critics are asking, if the Cold War is over, then why has global intelligence continued to mushroom?

"Russia’s defeated; we are still the superpower, the one and only superpower in the world," says Dean. "How do we justify all the systems that we have in place; how do we justify all of the activities of the people we’ve employed in the intelligence community to keep going?"

But Bamford, an NSA observer for over 20 years, argues that there are still too many global hotspots to consider downsizing at Fort Meade. For example, while much of the NSA's attention was focused on the growing missile threats in North Korea, it completely missed the budding nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan in 1998.

"This is an intelligence agency that some critics are giving enormous abilities to listen to everything everywhere at all times, but this was a major security issue, whether India and Pakistan were developing nuclear weapons, but they didn't hear it -- they didn't know about it," he says. "So this is an agency that is given far more credit for being able to listen to things than they are able to. They can't even listen to things they're supposed to be listening to, let alone things they're not supposed to be listening to."

Since its creation in 1952, the National Security Agency has remained America's biggest intelligence secret -- so secret, in fact, that Washington insiders often joke that the initials "NSA" stand for "No Such Agency." But for the first time in its history, the agency may be forced to reveal some of those secrets to Congress.

Georgia Republican Bob Barr is leading a congressional movement to force the NSA to answer for spying on U.S. citizens.

"There seems to be very credible evidence that this operation is taking place, and has been taking place for quite some time," says Barr. "At this point, all we're asking for is the basic information telling us what do you at the NSA, the National Security Agency, believe is the legal basis for you to gather this information? That's the starting point: What's the basis that you believe you're authorized to do this?"

That question set off a battle royal between the NSA and the House Intelligence Committee earlier in 1999. When asked about the legality of their procedures, the agency refused to provide Congress with any information, citing attorney-client privilege.

"It's hard to say it with a straight face," says Barr. "They just make these things up in order to not disclose something they don't want to disclose."

"Even people on the inside at NSA realize that that was a terrible mistake they made by trying to invoke client-attorney privilege to try to avoid providing Congress answers to questions that Congress asked them," says Madsen.

In response, Barr proposed a measure that will require the NSA to report to Congress on the legal standards they use for spying. The measure was passed by the House and is now under consideration by the Senate. Congressional hearings on ECHELON are expected early this year.

Meanwhile the battle against Big Brother has forged some unusual alliances in Washington. At Barr's side in this investigation is the American Civil Liberties Union, which is working hard to make ECHELON a household name on Capitol Hill. In November, the ACLU went online with a watchdog Web site designed to put the American public on "ECHELON Watch."

"The NSA is used to operating in a black box," says Nojeim. "When it comes to our rights, that box needs to be opened. The only people who can open that box for the American people are the members of Congress."

NSA officials declined an interview with CBN News, but sent a written statement saying, "The National Security Agency operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws in protecting the privacy rights of U.S. persons."

Congress is now faced with the challenge of finding hard evidence about how the program operates, a difficult task since the agency's official position is that it can neither "confirm or deny the existence of ECHELON."

And despite numerous outside allegations about the NSA's spying activities, no one on the inside has been willing to talk publicly about ECHELON ... until now.

CAFCA - Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa

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