Civil Liberties

Spying on Innocents Abroad

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Two former military intercept operators, both Arab linguists, have independently told ABC News that the National Security Agency routinely listens to the telephone conversations of innocent Americans in the Middle East, including soldiers, aid workers, and journalists, when they call people in the United States. "These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," one said. She described the conversations as "personal, private things [involving] Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism." The other whistleblower said intercept operators would often share especially risqué or amusing conversations, including calls to spouses and girlfriends, with each other. "Hey, check this out," he said colleagues  at the NSA center in Fort Gordon, Georgia, would tell him, "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."  As ABC notes, this sort of idle snooping is rather different from the sort of by-the-book professionalism that Bush administration officials have repeatedly insisted characterizes the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program:

"There is a constant check to make sure that our civil liberties of our citizens are treated with respect," said President Bush at a news conference this past February….

In testimony before Congress, then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, said private conversations of Americans are not intercepted.

"It's not for the heck of it. We are narrowly focused and drilled on protecting the nation against al Qaeda and those organizations who are affiliated with it," Gen. Hayden testified.

He was asked by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), "Are you just doing this because you just want to pry into people's lives?"

"No, sir," General Hayden replied.

In June I noted that Barack Obama supported the legislation that gave the executive branch permission to monitor Americans' international communications at will, while John McCain seems to think the president did not need Congress' permission.

[Thanks to Tricky Vic for the tip.]

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  1. Boring. Government is in the business of fucking with you. The Framers knew it, and we fucked it up anyway.

    The PGP guy has some nice VOIP encryption software out.

  2. Think about it, if the Army didn’t discharge all those gay Arab linguists we’d know even more about the abuses that inevitably comes from the combination of downtime and the ability to spy on virtually anyone.

  3. Barack Obama supported the legislation that gave the executive branch permission to monitor Americans’ international communications at will, while John McCain seems to think the president did not need Congress’ permission.

    Turd sandwich – Douchebag shake. Take your pick.
    This year has bothered me so much I may never vote for a major party again.

  4. The other whistleblower said intercept operators would often share especially risqu? or amusing conversations, including calls to spouses and girlfriends, with each other.

    Of course, they did. As would anybody who has the job of listening to boring phone calls all day.

  5. Does the Fourth Amendment protect Americans in the Middle East?

  6. Does the Fourth Amendment protect Americans in the Middle East?

    Let us turn our hymnals to Amendment Four:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    I don’t see anything in there that implies the US government sheds the restrictions placed upon it just because they want to search/seize an American that happens to be somewhere else on Earth.

  7. LMNOP
    Somehow a magical national security exception has long been uncontroversial despite our Founder’s failure to put anything about that in the actual text. This exception is trumpeted by SCOTUS “textualists” btw…

  8. “””Does the Fourth Amendment protect Americans in the Middle East?”””

    It’s not about the Middle East. The people listening were in Georgia, one end of the phone call was in the US. It about people on US soil listening to other people on US soil. I say the 4th does apply.

  9. Somehow a magical national security exception has long been uncontroversial despite our Founder’s failure to put anything about that in the actual text. This exception is trumpeted by SCOTUS “textualists” btw…

    First, I want to say that in no way do I agree with spying on Americans without a solid warrant. Period. But I just want to address your point-

    The Constitution is not some legal Athena, sprung forth fully formed from the forehead of the Creator. It comes from a certain context, and that context was English, where the crown and Parliament had long established authority to do near whatever they damn well pleased in service of state security. The United States Constitution is not very long. A lot of what it has come to “mean” is implied by the tradition surrounding its creation and how the framers commented on those traditions, both through the Constitution and other documents.

  10. MAX HATS —

    I’d buy that theory as a possible explanation if it weren’t for the fact that the Constitution was written in the context of a time when a revolution had just been won over just how far those powers extend. The American Revolution in many ways can be read as an explicit rejection of the plenary power of the state to do whatever it damn well pleases in *any* sphere.

  11. Well, given that some acetic acid and water is a lot more appetizing than a big shit on a slice of Wonder Bread, I’ll take that Douchebag from Hawallinois over his turdly sandwichness from Arizona.

  12. The comments are incorrect. It is frightening. You are playing right into the hands of people with plans.

    Whoa, that makes me sound weird; however, I’m right and I don’t give a shit.

    Don’t be stupid, please. You want to feel “not important” enough to be spied on? Sorry, too late.

    That’s like saying you’re not important enough to be advertised to.

  13. I want what JLE’s inhaling.

    Except maybe the paranoia. “People with plans” seems too ominous to maintain a buzz.

  14. “Hey, check this out,” he said colleagues at the NSA center in Fort Gordon, Georgia, would tell him, “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.”

    So the line about not having anything to worry about if you’re not doing anything illegal is no longer operative, huh?

  15. I’m not paranoid because I don’t really care. Nothing to lose.

    However, I’ve been drinking Sparks tonight and aside from making people terribly horny it also makes you do intensive research and talk to yourself. Weird shit.

    I live in the wrong century.

  16. perthunkadunk beluga chunk meenie meenie yarkasham. That about sums up what I think of this shit.

  17. Everybody plays, everybody wins.

    I should really lay off this shit.

  18. Is Sparks so bad that you need bong rips to keep it down?

  19. Turd sandwich – Douchebag shake. Take your pick.

    Hey, no need to pick, with bipartisanshit you get both.

  20. Sounds more like a frat prank than a nefarious government plot to trample my Fourth Amendment rights. Anyone with a computer and a cell phone is spied upon daily by all kinds of shady individuals with far less accountability than the U.S. government. And don’t even get me started on that cop in the food court who I suspect may be listening to my conversations.

  21. Rush Limbaugh compared Abu Ghraib to a frat prank.

    What fraternity did these Bush administration types belong to?

  22. It’s not even a nefarious plot to trample your Fourth Amendment protections. Plotting requires thought.

    These people are so intellectually lazy and incurious they don’t even understand the concept of limited government, personal responsibility, or their own inability to extinguish risk. They’re saving you from ScaryBadGuys, and anything they do is okay. If you have a problem with that, you must be part of the International ScaryBadGuy Conspiracy. If you believe there is such a thing as an acceptable level of risk, you must be crazy.

  23. “What fraternity did these Bush administration types belong to?”

    The kind that enjoyed doing elephant walks.

  24. Sullum,
    Not to nitpick, but this has nothing to do with any recent law.
    This is ECHELON.
    I just think people should know that this certain intelligence program has been used to spy on the American people for over 40 years.
    I guess it is nice that people have suddenly become aware.

  25. OK folks. Spill it. Who has done international phone sex? Does it bother you that some bred dipshit bureaucrat may have listened in? Would you have had performance anxiety if you thought they might be?

    I’ll wager the whole program is a giant waste of our tax dollars.

  26. bred shoud read bored

  27. Is it true the NSA has the best secret collection of sex tapes in the whole United States of America?
    I heard J. Edgar Hoover use to love his sex tapes too,
    while he trotted around in panties.

    What’s wrong with you people?
    Ain’t you embarassed?
    Don’t you have no shame?

    Oh what the hell…?
    I like porn too!

  28. As the statute of limitations time limit has passed, I can admit that we would often listen to phone calls late at night while pulling shift at the communications station. Good ones would be put on the speaker and occasionally we would cross-patch two conversations. Hilarity ensued.

    The fact that I was in the US Air Force technically means that I was “working for the government” but we were not nefarious spooks, just bored GI’s.

    .. “Tech Control” Hobbit

  29. “”””Rush Limbaugh compared Abu Ghraib to a frat prank.”””

    Aside from being a bullshit statement, I guess Limbaugh isn’t aware that people have been going to jail for frat pranks and/or hazing.

  30. As ABC notes, this sort of idle snooping is rather different from the sort of by-the-book professionalism that Bush administration officials have repeatedly insisted characterizes the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program

    Although it’s worth noting that this isn’t the Terrorist Surveillance Program. This is something that the NSA’s been doing this for years. That’s because these are satellite phones. Wireless communications, if you listen to an area at all, you can’t avoid picking up signals that you later determine (after decrypting) that they’re US persons. FISA’s never covered wireless comms. Ever since Reagan there’s been an Executive Order saying that the NSA and buddies have to use various “minimization procedures” so that once something is determined to be made by a US person, it has to be discarded within 24-48 hours, etc. Same stuff’s been going on for years.

    The recent Terrorist Surveillance Program stuff had to do with the NSA and Administration wanting to apply the same stuff that they’ve been doing for years to wireless signals to wired signals. Used to be, on the old phone network and circuit-switched calls, it was very easy to determine who was on each end and to avoid US person calls. With packet-switching and encryption, particularly over VoIP networks, it’s much harder to do so. The NSA, in response to the extra privacy afforded by VoIP, responded by wanting to treat such calls as it has been treating wireless for years.

    All that said, while some level of operator stupidity is inevitable (and should be punished), it is important to know if USSID 18 is being violated in general. But the fact that satellite calls made by US persons in the Middle East are picked up and decoded by the same tools aimed at all satellite calls in the Middle East– that’s inevitable if you’re going to listen in at all. It is important to try to automate the procedures and absolutely minimize any listening in, and try to separate the detection of whether it’s a US person as soon as possible, and not let operators do stupid crap.

  31. “In June I noted that Barack Obama supported the legislation that gave the executive branch permission to monitor Americans’ international communications at will, while John McCain seems to think the president did not need Congress’ permission.”

    Although that legislation had nothing to do with this situation. The NSA long has been able to listen in to wireless signals.

  32. John Thacker dumps large pallet of bricks [read: facts] on thread. Thread dies. Film at 11.

  33. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I remember most of our phone calls to the US were accompanied by that tell-tale clicking sound. Our lines were monitored, but I was never sure if it was the company, the Saudis or the US… especially after ’90.

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