Yesterday, Russell Tice appeared on Countdown with Keith Olberman (video) (transcript) to talk about large-scale surveillance and data acquisition conducted during the Bush Administration. I wrote about it here, gimmeshelter wrote about it here, and mcjoan wrote about it here.
Tonight, Mr. Tice was back and was joined by James Risen of the NYT.
First, a recap:
The synopsis of Wednesday's interview is that Mr. Tice said (at least) two very disturbing things. The first is that systemic, pervasive surveillance of ALL electronic communications was conducted and that the metadata gained from it was used to facilitate targeted surveillance of particular people and groups. The second is that among those groups were the news media: despite what he was told initially about how his work would be used to exclude certain groups, he eventually realized that it was actually being using to include them. These targeted people and groups were then subjected to a higher level of surveillance: that is, not only was the metadata acquired and stored, but the data -- the actual content of every email, every IM, every phone call, every fax, everything -- was acquired and stored. Mr. Tice did not name any other groups, nor did he name any individuals in Wednesday night's appearance.
I recommend (a) reading the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Tice (first link in the introduction), (b) watching the interview and/or reading the transcript (also linked in the introduction), and (c) at least skimming the referenced diary entries if you haven't already. (Mine provides a small primer on metadata vs. data for those not already conversant.) Also note Jesselyn Raddack's defense of Mr. Tice at Findlaw.
Now, on to tonight's (Thursday's) program.
Mr. Tice opened by explaining that data mining techniques were used, and data acquired from wiretaps was augmented with other data: for example, credit card and banking data. He commented that these techniques were applied to large numbers of people who were selected for this invasive practice by algorithm -- that is, if the metadata of their communications matched various filters, then they might be flagged as a potential suspect and subjected to total data acquisition.
When asked who authorized this, and where it was developed, Mr. Tice suggested that this might be the remnants of the DARPA TIA (Total Information Awareness) program, but said that he didn't really know. When asked who was able to access this data, he said that just as he was starting to look into that question, he was fired, thus removing his ability to have any insight into this.
KO (and I apologize to Mr. Olbermann for acronyming him (and for verbing that)) asked Mr. Tice to comment on which specific news organizations were targeted (per his comments last night) but he declined to specify.
James Risen of the New York Times (and author of "State of War") stated that he knows that the Bush administration acquired his phone records. He can't confirm Mr. Tice's allegations, but feels they're worth following up on. He feels that the NSA is capable of vastly more than we know and referenced the Ashcroft hospital incident as possibly connected to that. KO asked Mr. Risen to speculate on the possible usage of journalist-specific targeting by such a program and he concurred that it's entirely possible. KO suggested that this has a chilling effect on journalists; Mr. Risen concurred and observed that it also has a chilling effect on sources, e.g., government whistleblowers.
We owe Countdown and Keith Olbermann big-time for getting this story out. As I've looked around today, I find that it's been roundly ignored by many media outlets. And I don't understand why: it seems to me that it might represent the single largest violation of the Constitutional rights of American citizens ever.
Turner: They've got all of it.
Higgins: What? What did you do?
Turner: I told them a story. I told 'em a story. You play games; I told 'em a story.
Higgins: Oh, you... you poor, dumb son of a bitch. You've done more damage than you know.
Turner: I hope so.
Higgins: You're about to be a very lonely man. It didn't have to end this way.
Turner: Of course it did.
Higgins: Hey Turner! How do you know they'll print it? You can take a walk... but how far if they don't print it?
Turner: They'll print it.
Higgins: How do you know?
--- Higgins and Turner (The Condor) on the sidewalk in front of the New York Times
Update 1: The algorithmic targeting thing might bear with a little explanation, so let me give it a try.
The two tiers of surveillance that Mr. Tice described consist of all-encompassing metadata acquisition and more tightly focused data acquisition. Here's an example of how that might work (using email to illustrate, as I did yesterday): suppose you know that The Bad Guys all picked up a certain brand of cheap digital camera and that's what they're using to take pictures of potential targets and share them. Suppose that this particular model of camera has a default setting of 1846x948 pixels, and suppose that The Bad Guys are transferring these files around via email, using accounts on free mail providers like Yahoo and Hotmail and Gmail.
What might happen is that somebody writes an algorithm that looks at all the email and flags anything that is to a free mail provider, from a free mail provider, has attached photos, and has attached photos that are 1846x948. That's the first tier, based entirely on metadata.
Whenever a message is found that matches those criteria, the sender and recipient(s) are noted and from then on, everything they send or receive gets vacuumed up. And that extends way beyond email: if the sender's phone number or fax number or IM account or anything else can be identified, then everything associated with those gets included too. And per Mr. Tice's comments about pulling in data from external databases: their credit card records, their bank records, everything else.
That's the second tier, where every scrap of data is picked up.
Which means that if you happened to buy the same cheap digital camera as The Bad Guys and you happen to use Gmail, you're going to be swept up by that same algorithm and all of your data will be given the same special attention as theirs.
Obviously there are millions of variations on this -- and no way for any of us to know whether or not we were subjected to the second, far more intrusive, form of information gathering. But even the first is bad enough.
Update 3: JRandomPoster wrote an excellent diary entry today on terrorism, surveillance, and data mining. I highly recommend that folks read it for an introduction to how machine learning techniques and statistical classifiers are built and used.
Update 4: I have been unable to find much reporting and/or discussion of this issue elsewhere. There are postings at Crooks and Liars, and at FireDogLake, Democratic Underground, Common Dreams...and I don't mean to minimize the impact of these, but I'm guessing they all represent different segments of the progressive community talking to itself. Has anyone been able to find coverage of this (a) in a major newspaper (b) on a major news web site (c) on any network other than MSNBC or similar?