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March 8-14, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Wake-Up Call

By Peter Byrne


Last week, I stopped by the Santa Rosa headquarters of Sonic.net, easily the most efficient internet service provider in Northern California. In light of the revelation that President Bush ordered the National Security Agency to illegally surveil the phone calls and e-mails of certain American citizens, I asked Dane Jasper, the CEO of Sonic.net, to chat with me about the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to spy on his slice of cyberspace.

Jasper says he sees a couple of law-enforcement subpoenas and wiretap orders each year. Back in 1998, the FBI spent a month on his premises tracking two hackers who were breaking into military computers. Sonic.net technicians assisted the feds after determining that crimes were being committed using their circuits. The hackers were convicted on the basis of evidence supplied by the ISP. Jasper says that in his few encounters with government agents, they were careful to protect the civil rights of Sonic.net customers (which makes sense, because improperly collected evidence could be thrown out of court).

He comments, "I am baffled by why the NSA did not seek court orders to wiretap. That speaks volumes about the Bush administration's respect for due process of the law." He criticized the various telecommunications companies that complied with the NSA's illegal wiretap instructions. The youthful CEO is also concerned about a recent legal ruling that could compel ISPs to provide technological back doors into their equipment for federal spies, the same as telephone companies already do.

Likewise, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., is wary of the surveillance society. On July 17, 2003, as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he wrote to Vice President Dick Cheney: "I am writing to reiterate my concerns regarding the sensitive intelligence issues we discussed today. Clearly, the activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues . . . exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology and surveillance."

Last month, Rockefeller made a motion for the Intelligence Committee to investigate the NSA's warrantless surveillance program. His proposed investigation was sweeping. It included inspecting the bulk of domestic electronic surveillance activities conducted by the NSA after Sept. 11, 2001. He asked for the legal justification of the surveillance program, if any exists. He asked for the "technical means" and "operational procedures" to be revealed. He asked if the wiretap information was shared with other government agencies; which telecommunications corporations assisted the NSA adventure; and how the information was deployed.

Rockefeller's request was limited to domestic interceptions by the NSA, which is theoretically focused on scooping up "foreign" electronic communications. Even though the investigation and its results would have been top secret, the committee, which includes our own Sen. Dianne Feinstein, torpedoed Rockefeller's proposal.

"This rationale for withholding information from Congress is unacceptable and nothing more than a political smokescreen by the White House," Rockefeller charged.

What many people do not know, however, is that Bush does not have to break the law to conduct "normal" domestic surveillance. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, D.C., told me last year, "There is no explicit prohibition in any law to the effect that the Pentagon may not engage in domestic intelligence." To place a wiretap or to search a home of a suspected terrorist without his or her knowledge, Martin notes, officials need only obtain a secret warrant from a secret intelligence court—but other than that, they have a great deal of leeway. Again: A secret warrant from a secret court, but other than that, they have a great deal of leeway.

"The military can follow you around," Martin said. "It can use giant, secret databases of linked networks to gather a picture of the activities of millions of Americans, mapping all of their associations, and the only restriction is that such surveillance be done for purposes of foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, the drug war or force protection."

And it is not only Donald Rumsfeld who can cache your electronic profile. The militarized bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security just released its Intelligence Enterprise Strategic Plan. According to Chief Intelligence Officer Charles Allen, "Intelligence is central to all that DHS does." Central. Forget hurricanes.

Allen's computers "fuse" information from law enforcement, local, state and federal intelligence agencies, so-called private sector partners, satellites and Predator drones to track terrorist suspects (mostly peace demonstrators and vandals who love animals too much). Pork and nonsense. As our country runs amok, the people sleep, hoping against hope that the government isn't tapping into their dreams.


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