Inside Operation Highlander: the NSA's Wiretapping of Americans Abroad: Wired Threat Level Blog, Oct. 10, 2008.
The whole time I was living in Atlanta and working at CNN, I had no idea these big surveillance operations were just up the road in Fort Gordon, GA, near Augusta.
Kind of brings it all home. There are both scary and funny bits in these two stories above. I'll try to keep them separate, but bring out the details that jumped out at me.
The whole time, I thought there was a chance what they were really doing was voyeuristic, and I used to voice that to folks around the newsroom, just in passing. People pooh-poohed me, saying "Oh, they have WAY too much data to be getting off on listening to people's private and intimate stuff! It's just computer-scanned for keywords like "bomb" or "jihad"
Uh, yeah, right.
First, from the ABC News report, by way of Americablog (and I'm listening to Rachel Maddow talk about the same thing right now too): (emphasis below comes from Americablog)
She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and "collected on" as they called their offices or homes in the United States....
Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.
"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News...
Asked for comment about the ABC News report and accounts of intimate and private phone calls of military officers being passed around, a US intelligence official said "all employees of the US government" should expect that their telephone conversations could be monitored as part of an effort to safeguard security and "information assurance."
"They certainly didn't consent to having interceptions of their telephone sex conversations being passed around like some type of fraternity game," said Jonathon Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who has testified before Congress on the country's warrantless surveillance program.
"This story is to surveillance law what Abu Ghraib was to prison law," Turley said....
But as humorously pathetic as a bunch of drooling, giggling eavesdroppers is, Wired has the scarier stuff on 27-B-Stroke-6, with some deeper research going back before the ABC story broke. There's some real red meat below regarding official procedures BEFORE 9/11, to contrast what happened AFTER it. Those are the details I hold on to most tightly (emphasis below is mine).
Inside Operation Highlander: the NSA's Wiretapping of Americans AbroadBy Kim ZetterOctober 10, 2008 | 6:06:27 PM
A top secret NSA wiretapping facility in Georgia accused of spying on Americans illegally was hastily staffed with inexperienced reservists in the months following September 11, where they worked under conflicting orders and with little supervision, according to three former workers at the spy complex.
"Nobody knew exactly what the heck we were doing," said a former translator for the project, code named Highlander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were figuring out the rules as we were going along."
Former Army Reserve linguist Adrienne Kinne, who worked at the facility at Fort Gordon, won new attention this week for her year-old claim that she intercepted and transcribed satellite phone calls of American civilians in the Middle East for the National Security Agency. Senate intelligence committee chair Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) opened a probe into the alleged abuses after ABC News reported on them Thursday.
Threat Level spoke with Kinne extensively last year about the alleged systematic surveillance of Americans and others operating in the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks. She provided a number of details about some of the calls and how the operation was conducted.
Aid workers and journalists were specifically targeted in the program, and their phone numbers were added to a "priority list", Kinne said last year. Among those under surveillance were workers from nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations Developing Countries Program, as well as journalists staying in Baghdad at the time of the Iraq invasion. The intercepted calls included conversations among American, British, Australian and other civilian foreign nationals in the Middle East, as well as conversations between aid workers and journalists in the Middle East and their family members in the United States.
"If it was happening then I'm sure it's happening now, and who knows on what scale," Kinne said. "That's the thing that really bothers me."
But at the time we were unable to confirm her account of the spying. Two coworkers of Kinne's, who spoke with Threat Level on condition of anonymity, conceded that the group operated under ambiguous rules and with poor supervision, but insisted no deliberate eavesdropping on Americans occurred.
Now a second former Arabic linguist with the Navy has corroborated her claims to ABC, and to NSA expert James Bamford, who includes the story in his upcoming book Shadow Factory.
If the allegations are true, it would seem to indicate that warrantless spying of Americans approved by President Bush following 9/11 expanded rapidly beyond U.S. borders to citizens overseas, notwithstanding United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, or USSID 18 -- an NSA rule that bars overseas surveillance of Americans without authorization and probable cause.
Kinne, who is 31, served in the U.S. Army Reserves as a sergeant and an Arabic linguist from October 2001 to August 2003 at a U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia, which operated as a listening post for the National Security Agency. Kinne had served active duty in the U.S. Army as an intelligence linguist with a top secret SCI security clearance from 1994 to 1998, and was in the reserves on September 11, 2001.
At first, Kinne didn't think they were doing anything wrong because in mid-2002, several months after the surveillance began, a supervisor told her group of linguists and analysts that they had received a "waiver" that allowed them to intercept and listen to the conversations of Americans. The waiver also gave them permission to spy on British, Canadian and Australian citizens Kinne said.
Under federal law, such a waiver would usually require special national security circumstances –- such as an imminent threat of death or attack. But Kinne said the people whose conversations she targeted didn't discuss information of a military or terrorist nature, and the interceptions occurred over the entire Middle East –- not just in war zones. The surveillance was still going on when Kinne left active reserve duty in August 2003.
Kinne's mission at Fort Gordon, which was given the name Highlander, intercepted only communication sent through satellite phones, which included faxes. This represented a change from her active duty in the 1990s when her group had intercepted only live radio transmissions involving military targets in the Middle East. The operation that began in 2001 involved region-wide interceptions, which meant that satellite calls of businessmen, journalists and other civilians were sometimes vacuumed up with everything else.
Generally, when incidental interception of Americans occurs, there are procedures for handling the intercepts. Under USSID 18, recordings of such calls are supposed to be abandoned and destroyed when a U.S. citizen is identified. The only exceptions to this rule are when the attorney general affirms that the surveillance target is believed to be an agent of a foreign power, or the purpose of the collection is to acquire "significant foreign intelligence information."
Kinne's description of the interceptions, however, indicated that U.S. aid workers and journalists were routinely targeted without cause.
To illustrate that contrast, Kinne recalled a conversation intercepted by her army intelligence unit in 1997, in which one of the parties to the call mentioned the name of a U.S. politician who was coming to the Middle East for a visit. Under USSID 18, the names of members of the U.S. legislative branch cannot appear in intelligence reports without special authorization, and Kinne said her group deleted every record they collected that mentioned the politician's name.
William Weaver, who worked in the U.S. Army signals intelligence for eight years in Berlin and Augsberg, Germany, concurred with her assessment of how seriously USSID 18 was regarded.
"The way USSID 18 was treated by us was that it came down from God and was sacrosanct," said Weaver, who is now an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas, El Paso. "We were told at training and many times after that, that if you violated USSID 18 you could spend the rest of your life in prison. The mindset was that you do not intercept U.S. citizens. And the minute you recognized that you intercepted, you immediately reported up the chain of command."
For the first couple of months Kinne and her colleagues didn't know the identity of the people connected to the phone numbers they monitored. "At that point in time, we were just given numbers and we ... were still sorting out who belonged to what," she said. "That's why we initially started collecting Americans and other nationals because we didn't know whose number belonged to whom."
Once they identified speakers, they typed the person's name or organization into the system, so that when a conversation involving that number was intercepted again, the name appeared on their computer screen. Although the system allowed them to block phone numbers identified as belonging to a nongovernmental organization or journalist, they never did so. Instead, she said, they added the numbers of humanitarian aid organizations and journalists to a priority list.
"They were 'priority five,' from what I remember," she said. "'Priority one' was terrorist organizations. 'Priority five' is middle of the road. 'Priority nine' was just unidentified numbers. Not only were we given the ability to listen to [NGOs and journalists], but it was programmed into our system to listen to them."
They wrote a report on each call, except those made to parties in the U.S. Kinne said they were just instructed to listen to those calls. She later said in another conversation that some people in her group did write reports involving conversations of Americans and Australians, but didn't reference the nationality of the speaker in their report.
"Americans 'in-country' were fair game as long as you didn't identify them as American," she said. "People wrote reports on what journalists said all the time."
For example, Kinne was reprimanded for listening to one call when she should have been focused on a fax that her unit intercepted purporting to identify the location of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The fax arrived in the middle of the night, around the time of the Iraq invasion Kinne was monitoring a call involving two English-speaking humanitarian aid workers who were in a vehicle frantically trying to reach their office to find cover before bombs began raining on the city.
"I just remember they were ... calling in their position [to their colleagues] every 10 to 15 minutes or so because they were worried about their safety," she said.
Kinne filed several reports about the aid workers and gave their location to her supervisor, believing that U.S. military personnel might help the aid workers, or at least refrain from shooting their vehicle. But while she was monitoring the workers, a fax arrived, several pages long and written in Arabic. Even though the fax was from a phone number with a higher priority, Kinne ignored it because she felt the lives of the aid workers were more important.
When another worker later read the fax and realized its significance, all of the workers were instructed to drop everything to translate it. Kinne said the fax purported to describe the location of chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As soon as her group completed the translation, she said it was sent to the White House -– the only time information was sent directly in this manner.
After the information was on its way, Kinne looked at the source of the document and began to doubt its authenticity. She said it came from the Iraqi National Congress or Iraqi National Accord -- she couldn't remember which.
Kinne said she expressed doubts to her commanding officer, John Berry, about the authenticity of the information and was told that her job was to collect the information, not analyze it. "He said I didn't care about our mission or our country ... and I needed to stop asking questions," she said.
Kinne was written up in an incident report for having ignored the fax when it came in.
When she later read news reports confirming that an Iraqi group had fed the military intelligence false information, she suspected the fax had been deliberately sent through an open satellite network so that her unit would intercept it and give it to the White House.
The only other conversations Kinne recalled with any detail involved journalists staying at a hotel in Baghdad around the time of the U.S. invasion. The journalists revealed their location in calls to U.S. family members. Kinne said she'd been monitoring the conversations of journalists at the hotel for a while, when the name of the hotel appeared on a military list of targets for bombing. Kinne said she brought the information to Berry's attention.
"I told him, you realize there are journalists staying in that hotel and we have just said that we are going to bomb it," she said. "I assumed that ... whoever made the targeting list didn't know journalists were staying there."
She didn't know if the information was passed on to anyone, but in April 2003, a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine hotel, which was serving as a base for many journalists. Two journalists were killed. Two subsequent investigations by the army and the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that the gunners had never been told journalists were at the hotel.
Two fellow linguists who had worked with Kinne at Fort Gordon disputed Kinne's story of illegal surveillance. They asked to remain anonymous because they were violating orders to not discuss their work at Fort Gordon.
Both linguists said they never violated USSID 18 and had never heard about a waiver, which one of them called implausible. They said USSID 18 was drummed into their heads and was posted everywhere at work as a constant reminder.
The other translator noted that Kinne had conflicts with a number of people she worked with -- particularly her supervisor Berry -- and had a negative view of their team and its mission, which may have affected her perception of the operation. They described Berry as a problematic and hostile manager who didn't seem to know what he was doing. Adding to this was a pervasive sense of confusion around their mission, which was set up quickly on the fly and being run by reservists who had no experience intercepting phone calls.
The unit was overworked, understaffed and undertrained. They didn't have a standard of operation, or SOP, when they started the mission and had to cobble one together from other SOPs. Many conversations they had to translate were in dialects unfamiliar to them or languages, such as Pashtu, in which they had no proficiency.
It's worth noting that Kinne began speaking about her surveillance activities only after becoming an anti-war activist, and working with groups calling for the impeachment of President Bush.
When Threat Level spoke with her last year, she was working as a research assistant for the Veterans Administration in Vermont and was becoming increasingly active politically. She had worked on get-out-the-vote campaigns for Moveon.org in November 2006, and in January 2007 began meeting with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. She participated in a rally and a sit-in at the Vermont state house and went on a bus tour with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan calling for the impeachment of President Bush.
Kinne said that after the White House announced a troop escalation in Iraq, she became very angry that the 2006 mid-term elections and subsequent changes in Congress hadn't led to pressure on the Administration to pull out of Iraq.
But it wasn't until details of the government's illegal domestic spying operation on Americans were revealed in late 2005, that she had reason to ponder her surveillance work, she said. Even then, her realization came slowly.
"I never really thought about how what we did related to [those news reports]," she said. "It took me quite a while to put the pieces together. I just figured we were one mission, and I never thought that probably military intelligence groups across the country were all being given waivers to listen to whomever they wanted."
It was another year and a half after the New York Times broke the story on the domestic surveillance program before Kinne uttered her first public words about the surveillance she had conducted on behalf of the NSA.
"I still felt like it was all classified and I wasn't supposed to talk about it," she said. "But the more I got involved in things, the more I started getting really angry that people in government were not telling the truth and that people who know what's going on [are] not speaking out. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I should tell people what I knew and hopefully that would encourage other people to say what they know."
She said she just wanted to pass the information to others who could determine whether the army and administration broke the law. To that end, she had submitted her allegations to Sen. Patrick Leahy's office (D-Vermont) in the hope that his staff would look into the matter to determine if laws had been broken. Leahy's staff sent her an e-mail indicating that they sent her letter to the Department of Defense Inspector General. But Kinne never heard anything after that.
Given her political activities and the delay in reporting the alleged abuse, the denials of her peers and the lack of corroborating evidence, Threat Level elected not to publish her claims last year. But in his upcoming book, The Shadow Factory, journalist James Bamford -- the leading civilian expert on the NSA -- reports that he confirmed the illegal surveillance with another linguist named David Murfee Faulk, who worked on the program through the Navy. One of Faulk's coworkers -- not Kinne -- asked a supervisor about USSID 18, and was ordered to disregard the directive, Bamford reports.