Deep in a remote, fog-layered hollow near Sugar Grove, W.Va., hidden
by fortress-like mountains, sits the country's largest eavesdropping bug. Located
in a "radio quiet" zone, the station's large parabolic dishes secretly
and silently sweep in millions of private telephone calls and e-mail messages
Run by the ultrasecret National Security Agency, the listening post intercepts
all international communications entering the eastern United States. Another
N.S.A. listening post, in Yakima,Wash., eavesdrops on the western half of the
A hundred miles or so north of Sugar Grove, in Washington, the N.S.A. has suddenly
taken center stage in a political firestorm. The controversy over whether the
president broke the law when he secretly ordered the N.S.A. to bypass a special
court and conduct warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens has even provoked
some Democrats to call for his impeachment.
According to John E. McLaughlin, who as the deputy director of the Central
Intelligence Agency in the fall of 2001 was among the first briefed on the program,
this eavesdropping was the most secret operation in the entire intelligence
network, complete with its own code word - which itself is secret.
Jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency," the N.S.A. was created
in absolute secrecy in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. Today, it is the largest
intelligence agency. It is also the most important, providing far more insight
on foreign countries than the C.I.A. and other spy organizations.
But the agency is still struggling to adjust to the war on terror, in which
its job is not to monitor states, but individuals or small cells hidden all
over the world. To accomplish this, the N.S.A. has developed ever more sophisticated
technology that mines vast amounts of data. But this technology may be of limited
use abroad. And at home, it increases pressure on the agency to bypass civil
liberties and skirt formal legal channels of criminal investigation. Originally
created to spy on foreign adversaries, the N.S.A. was never supposed to be turned
inward. Thirty years ago, Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who was then
chairman of the select committee on intelligence, investigated the agency and
came away stunned.
"That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people,"
he said in 1975, "and no American would have any privacy left, such is
the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it
doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."
He added that if a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A. "could enable it
to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back."
At the time, the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said
over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to
private letters. But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts
in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet,
and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability
to get inside a person's mind.
The N.S.A.'s original target had been the Communist bloc. The agency wrapped
the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in an electronic cocoon. Anytime
an aircraft, ship or military unit moved, the N.S.A. would know. And from 22,300
miles in orbit, satellites with super-thin, football-field-sized antennas eavesdropped
on Soviet communications and weapons signals.
Today, instead of eavesdropping on an enormous country that was always chattering
and never moved, the N.S.A. is trying to find small numbers of individuals who
operate in closed cells, seldom communicate electronically (and when they do,
use untraceable calling cards or disposable cellphones) and are constantly traveling
from country to country.
During the cold war, the agency could depend on a constant flow of American-born
Russian linguists from the many universities around the country with Soviet
studies programs. Now the government is forced to search ethnic communities
to find people who can speak Dari, Urdu or Lingala - and also pass a security
clearance that frowns on people with relatives in their, or their parents',
According to an interview last year with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the N.S.A.'s
director, intercepting calls during the war on terrorism has become a much more
complex endeavor. On Sept. 10, 2001, for example, the N.S.A. intercepted two
messages. The first warned, "The match begins tomorrow," and the second
said, "Tomorrow is zero hour." But even though they came from suspected
Al Qaeda locations in Afghanistan, the messages were never translated until
after the attack on Sept. 11, and not distributed until Sept. 12.
What made the intercepts particularly difficult, General Hayden said, was that
they were not "targeted" but intercepted randomly from Afghan pay
This makes identification of the caller extremely difficult and slow. "Know
how many international calls are made out of Afghanistan on a given day? Thousands,"
General Hayden said.
Still, the N.S.A. doesn't have to go to the courts to use its electronic monitoring
to snare Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan. For the agency to snoop domestically
on American citizens suspected of having terrorist ties, it first must to go
to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA, make a showing of probable
cause that the target is linked to a terrorist group, and obtain a warrant.
The court rarely turns the government down. Since it was established in 1978,
the court has granted about 19,000 warrants; it has only rejected five. And
even in those cases the government has the right to appeal to the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court of Review, which in 27 years has only heard one case. And
should the appeals court also reject the warrant request, the government could
then appeal immediately to a closed session of the Supreme Court.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the N.S.A. normally eavesdropped on a small number
of American citizens or resident aliens, often a dozen or less, while the F.B.I.,
whose low-tech wiretapping was far less intrusive, requested most of the warrants
Despite the low odds of having a request turned down, President Bush established
a secret program in which the N.S.A. would bypass the FISA court and begin eavesdropping
without warrant on Americans. This decision seems to have been based on a new
concept of monitoring by the agency, a way, according to the administration,
to effectively handle all the data and new information.
At the time, the buzzword in national security circles was data mining: digging
deep into piles of information to come up with some pattern or clue to what
might happen next. Rather than monitoring a dozen or so people for months at
a time, as had been the practice, the decision was made to begin secretly eavesdropping
on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people for just a few days or a week at a
time in order to determine who posed potential threats.
Those deemed innocent would quickly be eliminated from the watch list, while
those thought suspicious would be submitted to the FISA court for a warrant.
In essence, N.S.A. seemed to be on a classic fishing expedition, precisely
the type of abuse the FISA court was put in place to stop.At a news conference,
President Bush himself seemed to acknowledge this new tactic. "FISA is
for long-term monitoring," he said. "There's a difference between
detecting so we can prevent, and monitoring."
This eavesdropping is not the Bush administration's only attempt to expand
the boundaries of what is legally permissible.
In 2002, it was revealed that the Pentagon had launched Total Information Awareness,
a data mining program led by John Poindexter, a retired rear admiral who had
served as national security adviser under Ronald
Reagan and helped devise the plan to sell arms to Iran and illegally divert
the proceeds to rebels in Nicaragua.
Total Information Awareness, known as T.I.A., was intended to search through
vast data bases, promising to "increase the information coverage by an
order-of-magnitude." According to a 2002 article in The New York Times,
the program "would permit intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials
to mount a vast dragnet through electronic transaction data ranging from credit
card information to veterinary records, in the United States and internationally,
to hunt for terrorists." After press reports, the Pentagon shut it down,
and Mr. Poindexter eventually left the government.
But according to a 2004 General Accounting Office report, the Bush administration
and the Pentagon continued to rely heavily on data-mining techniques. "Our
survey of 128 federal departments and agencies on their use of data mining,"
the report said, "shows that 52 agencies are using or are planning to use
data mining. These departments and agencies reported 199 data-mining efforts,
of which 68 are planned and 131 are operational." Of these uses, the report
continued, "the Department of Defense reported the largest number of efforts."
The administration says it needs this technology to effectively combat terrorism.
But the effect on privacy has worried a number of politicians.
After he was briefed on President Bush's secret operation in 2003, Senator
Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee
on Intelligence, sent a letter to Vice President Dick
"As I reflected on the meeting today and the future we face," he
wrote, "John Poindexter's T.I.A. project sprung to mind, exacerbating my
concern regarding the direction the administration is moving with regard to
security, technology, and surveillance."
Senator Rockefeller sounds a lot like Senator Frank Church.
"I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge," Senator
Church said. "I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in
America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess
this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that
we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."
James Bamford is the author of "Puzzle Palace"
and"Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."