Skip to main content

Until yesterday, if you had posted with a straight face, "Everyone's phone is tapped," most people would have blinked, laughed, and the DKos debunking squad would be all over you. You might have been painted with the dreaded "Conspiracy Theorist" label. That has, of course, changed with Glenn Greenwald's article in The Guardian and, most importantly, a leaked copy of an Order issued in April by the FISA Court instructing Verizon to turn over all its records of phone calls made inside the United States, including purely local call records between US Citizens.

The disclosure that this is a domestic program being conducted on an “ongoing basis,” (according to The Washington Post, the order has been renewed every 90 days since 2006) – has people asking for information. But, this isn't new, it just confirms the details of what has been known about "The Program" since massive domestic wiretapping was first revealed by The New York Times in 2004.

Now, suddenly, people want information, and the topic doesn't seem so . . . tin foil hat.  Here's a relatively brief summary of what's publicly known about the government's key surveillance programs and how they actually work, and how this becomes part of your Permanent Record.

- MORE -

Here are the building blocks of the universal surveillance state:

"Stellar Wind", NSA call database

The United States' National Security Agency (NSA) maintains a database containing hundreds of billions of records of telephone calls made by U.S. citizens from the four largest telephone carriers in the United States: AT&T, SBC, BellSouth (all three now called AT&T), and Verizon.

The existence of this database and the NSA program that compiled it was unknown to the general public until USA Today broke the story on May 10, 2006. It is estimated that the database contains over 1.9 trillion call-detail records. According to Bloomberg News, the effort began approximately seven months before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The records include detailed call information (caller, receiver, date/time of call, length of call, etc.) for use in traffic analysis and social network analysis, but do not include audio information or transcripts of the content of the phone calls.

The database's existence has prompted fierce objections. It is often viewed as an illegal warrantless search and a violation of the pen register provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and (in some cases) the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The George W. Bush administration neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the domestic call record database. This contrasts with a related NSA controversy concerning warrantless surveillance of selected telephone calls; in that case they did confirm the existence of the program of debated legality. The program's code name is Stellar Wind.

FISA Court Driftnet Warrants, NSA Collection, Long-term Storage of US Person Data

Based on what little we know of the NSA’s programs from public reports, a single “authorization” will routinely cover hundreds or thousands of phone numbers and e-mail addresses. That means that even if there’s only “one occasion” on which the NSA “circumvented the spirit of the law” or flouted the Fourth Amendment, the rights of thousands of Americans could easily have been violated.

”Minimization procedures are the rules designed to limit the retention and dissemination of irrelevant information about innocent Americans that might get picked up during authorized surveillance. In ordinary criminal wiretaps, it makes sense to talk about “collection carried out pursuant to… minimization procedures” because, under the stricter rules governing such spying, someone is supposed to be monitoring the wiretap in realtime, and ensuring that innocent conversations (like a mobster’s spouse or teenage kids chatting on the house line) are not recorded.

But that’s not how FISA surveillance normally works. As a rare public ruling by the FISA Court explains, the standard procedure for FISA surveillance is that “large amounts of information are collected by automatic recording to be minimized after the fact.” The court elaborated: “Virtually all information seized, whether by electronic surveillance or physical search, is minimized hours, days, or weeks after collection.” (Emphasis mine.) In other words, minimization is something that normally happens after collection: First you intercept, then you toss out the irrelevant stuff. Intelligence officials have suggested the same in recent testimony before Congress: Communications aren’t “minimized” until they’re reviewed by human analysts—and given the incredible volume of NSA collection, it’s unlikely that more than a small fraction of what’s intercepted ever is seen by human eyes.

"Stellar Wind" is one codename for The Program. Another that is publicly known is "Thin Thread."
Stellar Wind is the open secret code name for certain information collection activities performed by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and revealed by Thomas Tamm to The New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. The operation was approved by President George W. Bush shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The program's activities involve data mining of a large database of the communications of American citizens, including e-mail communications, phone conversations, financial transactions, and Internet activity.

There were internal disputes within the Justice Department about the legality of the program, because data are collected for large numbers of people, not just the subjects of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants.

For a detailed discussion of Thin Thread, see Jane Mayer's 2011 profile of NSA whistleblower Bill Binney.

The Trailblazer and Turbulence Programs Absorbed Billions, But Thin Thread was the One That Went Operational

Going backwards, related NSA programs included Trailblazer, a multibillion dollar program that focused on interception and analysis of data carried on web communications networks, cell phones, VOIP, and e-mail. After receiving adverse publicity Trailblazer was shutdown but reportedly morphed into the NSA Turbulance Program. Thin Thread was a rival NSA program that went operational, resulting in massive warrantless domestic surveillance. This is described by Jane Mayer in a 2011 New Yorker article:

Code-named ThinThread, it had been developed by technological wizards in a kind of Skunk Works on the N.S.A. campus. Formally, the project was supervised by the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center, or SARC.

While most of the N.S.A. was reeling on September 11th, inside SARC the horror unfolded “almost like an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment,” according to J. Kirk Wiebe, an intelligence analyst who worked there. “We knew we weren’t keeping up.” SARC was led by a crypto-mathematician named Bill Binney, whom Wiebe describes as “one of the best analysts in history.” Binney and a team of some twenty others believed that they had pinpointed the N.S.A.’s biggest problem—data overload—and then solved it. But the agency’s management hadn’t agreed.

Binney, who is six feet three, is a bespectacled sixty-seven-year-old man with wisps of dark hair; he has the quiet, tense air of a preoccupied intellectual. Now retired and suffering gravely from diabetes, which has already claimed his left leg, he agreed recently to speak publicly for the first time about the Drake case. When we met, at a restaurant near N.S.A. headquarters, he leaned crutches against an extra chair. “This is too serious not to talk about,” he said.

Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” According to Binney, Drake took his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, became a political target within the agency.

Binney described Thin Thread to Mayer, who describes The Program this way:
ThinThread would correlate data from financial transactions, travel records, Web searches, G.P.S. equipment, and any other “attributes” that an analyst might find useful in pinpointing “the bad guys.” By 2000, Binney, using fibre optics, had set up a computer network that could chart relationships among people in real time. It also turned the N.S.A.’s data-collection paradigm upside down. Instead of vacuuming up information around the world and then sending it all back to headquarters for analysis, ThinThread processed information as it was collected—discarding useless information on the spot and avoiding the overload problem that plagued centralized systems. Binney says, “The beauty of it is that it was open-ended, so it could keep expanding.”

Pilot tests of ThinThread proved almost too successful, according to a former intelligence expert who analyzed it. “It was nearly perfect,” the official says. “But it processed such a large amount of data that it picked up more Americans than the other systems.” Though ThinThread was intended to intercept foreign communications, it continued documenting signals when a trail crossed into the U.S.
< . . .>
Binney, for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later. In the past few years, the N.S.A. has built enormous electronic-storage facilities in Texas and Utah. Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with “dictionary selection,” in the manner of Google. After 9/11, he says, “General Hayden reassured everyone that the N.S.A. didn’t put out dragnets, and that was true. It had no need—it was getting every fish in the sea.”

In addition to NSA's Thinthread and Trailblazer programs, DIA operated its own domestic-focused pre-9/11 surveillance program. At least one of these monitored AQ cells operating inside the US. The story of the Able Danger has been well documented and fairly widely known.

Able Danger was shut down by Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Steve Cambone in late 2000-early 2001 after it had mapped out the Al Qaeda support cell inside the US supporting Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attack cell members.

The Able Danger program built upon social network analysis focusing electronic surveillance on members of the so-called Brooklyn Cell that had remained in place after its establishment by CIA as part of Operation Cyclone, the Agency's operation that recruited and trained Jihadis for war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Much of bin Laden's organization grew out of the US and Saudi organized covert operations against the Russia and its allies in Central Asia and the oil-rich region of the Transcaucasus that flared up again as wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Dagestan, and Chechnya.

As early as 1997, as the US and Saudi paramilitary organized by bin Laden were cooperating in Kosovo, US intelligence officials were bragging that they had "mapped out" bin Laden's global financial and donor network by human and technical means.

Al Qaeda was already the focus of multiple surveillance operations inside the US, but this was gravely complicated by intelligence agencies from several countries stumbling over each other and the fatal duplicity of their network of interwoven double-agents that created the opportunity for the 9/11 attacks.  Able Danger was perhaps too successful as it plugged into the international morass of intelligence services surveilling and operating al Qaeda agents and double-agents inside the US before 9/11.  After it had acquired the AQ support network inside the US, including the identity of Mohamed Atta, Able Danger was unplugged, and some ten terabytes of data were ordered destroyed.

Other NSA and DIA technical collection and analysis programs, elsewhere referred as "The Program" survived the reorganization of intelligence that followed 9/11, and the closing down of some legacy programs that followed a series of disclosures and scandals involving "The Program" in the middle of the decade. Part of this was described by Shane Harris in The National Journal, "TIA LIVES ON":
February 23, 2006, or


 As early as February 2003, the Pentagon planned to use Genoa II technologies at the Army's Information Awareness Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., according to an unclassified Defense budget document. The awareness center was an early tester of various TIA tools, according to former employees. A 2003 Pentagon report to Congress shows that the Army center was part of an expansive network of intelligence agencies, including the NSA, that experimented with the tools. The center was also home to the Army's Able Danger program, which has come under scrutiny after some of its members said they used data-analysis tools to discover the name and photograph of 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta more than a year before the attacks.

    The other project has been re-designated "TopSail" (formerly Genoa II) and would provide IT tools to help anticipate and preempt terrorist attacks. SAIC has also been contracted to work on Topsail, including a US$3.7 million contract in 2005.

The Matrix Project and Your Terrorism Quotient (TQ)

Finally, we come to what may have been the most tin foilish program of all, Matrix, (yes, there really was one named that before the movie) Wish I were only kidding. But, according to this 2004 article, The Matrix program was in the works that had the potential to profile every American and assign each of us a Terrorism Quotient (TQ): ; see, related Cong. Research Service Study:

'Terrorism quotient' records spark suspicions about Matrix

NEW YORK (AP) — Before helping to launch the criminal information project known as Matrix, a database contractor gave U.S. and Florida authorities the names of 120,000 people who showed a statistical likelihood of being terrorists — sparking some investigations and arrests.

The "high terrorism factor" scoring system also became a key selling point for the involvement of the database company, Seisint Inc., in the Matrix project.

Public records obtained by The Associated Press from several states show that Justice Department officials cited the scoring technology in appointing Seisint sole contractor on the federally funded, $12 million project.

Seisint and the law enforcement officials who oversee Matrix insist that the terrorism scoring system ultimately was kept out of the project, largely because of privacy concerns.

However, new details about Seisint's development of the "terrorism quotient," including the revelation that authorities apparently acted on the list of 120,000, are renewing privacy activists' suspicions about Matrix's potential power.

Now, if that early profiling program was similarly developed, your Terrorism Quotient (TQ), goes with IQ into your permanent record.

Yes, your Permanent Record.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Needle in a haystack. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, KenBee

    If they have trouble with data overload, then affix words like 'terrorist', 'jihad', 'plot' and so on to every single email you send out.  If enough people do that on an ongoing basis, they're right back where they started, with far too much info for people to sort through.

    Big Brother is watching, so at least get a jobs program going by forcing them to hire a lot more watchers :P

  •  I don't think you have this quite right ... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, PeterHug

    Thin Thread was Binney's project and it was not implemented.  It was less intrusive because it implemented minimization early in the process.  Stellar Wind is the program that was chosen instead of Thin Thread. It just hoovers up everything and stores it for analysis later.

    “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?” - Sherwood Rowland

    by jrooth on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 12:01:49 PM PDT

    •  According to Mayer and Binney, TT went operational (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      commonmass, PeterHug, KenBee

      They make that very clear, and Mayer is among the best there is in reporting these things.

      TT was stripped of its safeguards by the Bush Admin, and later NSA reimplemented them.   You should read the article  - very worthwhile.

      TT is "The Program" and it is the basis for the current NSA program.  It is unclear whether Stellar Wind was something that came out of the Trailblazer Program or is another code word for Thin Thread.

      Perhaps. someone can clarify that point.

      •  I guess it's a matter of interpretation ... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        commonmass, marina, PeterHug

        From the Mayer article:

        Soon after 9/11, Drake says, he prepared a short, classified summary explaining how ThinThread “could be put into the fight,” and gave it to Baginski, his boss. But he says that she “wouldn’t respond electronically. She just wrote in a black felt marker, ‘They’ve found a different solution.’ ” When he asked her what it was, she responded, “I can’t tell you.” Baginski, who now works for a private defense contractor, recalls her interactions with Drake differently, but she declined to comment specifically.


        When Binney heard the rumors, he was convinced that the new domestic-surveillance program employed components of ThinThread: a bastardized version, stripped of privacy controls. “It was my brainchild,” he said. “But they removed the protections, the anonymization process. When you remove that, you can target anyone.” He said that although he was not “read in” to the new secret surveillance program, “my people were brought in, and they told me, ‘Can you believe they’re doing this? They’re getting billing records on U.S. citizens! They’re putting pen registers’ ”—logs of dialled phone numbers—“ ‘on everyone in the country!’ ”

        So yeah, Stellar Wind is a derivative of Thin Thread, but changed in fundamental ways.  Binney's design had minimization built in.  Stellar Wind makes no effort at minimization.

        “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?” - Sherwood Rowland

        by jrooth on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 12:33:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  You can request a copy of your permanent record (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, DeadHead, worldlotus
  •  All in the name of "keeping us safe". (3+ / 0-)

    Morally appalling and completely unbelievable.

    I resent that. I demand snark, and overly so -- Markos Moulitsas.

    by commonmass on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 12:31:31 PM PDT

  •  Permanent record? Seriously? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The thing our grammar school teachers would threaten to log all our bad behavior onto? Well if the CIA needs an expert at finger painting annoying kids faces blue, I'm the go to guy, or at least I was in kindergarten.

    I'm no philosopher, I am no poet, I'm just trying to help you out - Gomez (from the song Hamoa Beach)

    by jhecht on Thu Jun 06, 2013 at 01:29:18 PM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site