Pulling back the curtain on national security

President Barack Obama reassured us over the weekend that no one is sitting around listening to all of our telephone conversations.

That's good, because that would be the worst job in the world.

"Hi, this is Ron at VIP calling to tell you that your car is ready.

"Thanks, Ron, did you find that 'clunk, clunk' my wife hears when she turns the wheel?"

"Yep, we replaced that ball joint and you are all set."

Imagine listening to that kind of stuff for days on end, or listening to us listen to Muzak while we wait on hold.

The president's reassurance comes at a bad time, given recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was throwing every road block it could find at anti-big-government tea party organizations.

The IRS denied for several years doing this, even when asked directly by Congress. The agency kept denying it was doing so even after higher-ups in Washington told their underlings to stop doing it.

Finally, an IRS official slipped a little apology into an inconsequential speech in hopes the public would miss the admission.

Officials chose to do this rather than go back to congressmen and admit they had lied or had been seriously out of touch with their own organization.

What this means, of course, is that bureaucracies often act on their own, they act in their own interest and that interest may be very different than the public interest.

So, it is good we are about to, as everyone seems to say these days, "have a conversation" about government secrecy, which really means Congress will call some people on the carpet to explain themselves.

It's good we do so because, the last time we did, Americans got an eye-popping vision of where our government was headed.

It was 2002 when Vice Admiral John Poindexter, who had graduated first in his class in 1958 from the Naval Academy and had earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cal Tech, was given $200 million to set up a new national security organization.

This was just after 9/11 when the U.S. Congress began throwing lots of secret money at secret security organizations.

Congress should have known the admiral was on the wrong track when he chose, as the organizations's seal, the all-seeing-eye-of-God casting an eerie light upon the world.

While it was called the Information Awareness Office, the Latin slogan on the seal said "scientia est potentia" — information is power.

Why is it when people want to say something, but don't want you to know what they are saying, they put it in Latin?

Its stated mission was to achieve "total information awareness" in an effort to catch terrorists.

Really. You can look this up.

Poindexter told Congress he would achieve total awareness by using super computers to store information on everyone in the United States including e-mails, social networks, credit card records, travel histories, phone calls and anything else it felt necessary to do its work.

This would be used to maintain permanent personal records on everyone in the U.S. and, eventually, the world.

Poindexter thought big.

The organization would then apply complex algorithms to this information to identify people who might be up to no good.

No one thought, apparently, that someone might hack this information, or that someone working on the inside might use the data to ruin his ex-wife's life.

Ultimately, Poindexter wanted funding for biometric cameras to weed out suspicious people when, for instance, they went to board airplanes.

That Poindexter presented this all in public and with a straight face is testament to how out of touch hard-core spooks can become with the values of the American people.

Congress eventually defunded the IAO, but experts speculate some of Poindexter's pet projects were secretly carried forward by existing security agencies.

Clearly, the warehousing and analysis of all phone conversations sounds suspiciously like what he had in mind and which Congress rejected in 2002.

Experts estimate that the U.S. has more than 1 million people with top-security clearances, including government employees and contractors. They work in massive facilities around the country, have the latest technology and billions of dollars to spend.

In short, this is a beast that bears watching.


The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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FRANK EARLEY's picture

How did anyone ever survive "party lines"

As a former installer / repair person for a local small telephone company, I can tell you for certain. All those rumors about phone line conversations being readily available to someone at any time, are all true. Back when the phone service was analog, I would sit in my dial office and listen to all those clicks and dings in the back room, knowing hundreds of people were all on the phone at the same time. Although I had the ability to listen in on phone conversations at any point, who would want to? I could listen from a little box on the front of your house, or even from the top of just about any phone pole in town as long as I had the right information. Who can remember the old party lines? With those little gem's you were sort of on an honor system, you would never listen in on another phone call on your own line.
Has anyone ever had that "aunt", who could talk non stop for days? You could put the phone down and do chores, and comeback to right were you left off. You wonder if they even stop to inhale. On an eight way party line these individuals were feared more than anything. Especially if they kept seven other folks quiet, and one of their houses is on fire. At some point you have to cut in with a gentle reminder.
At one point, party lines were rampant, there weren't enough individual lines, so many folks had to share the same line. I wonder how many people back then "Expected" total privacy with their phone calls? For quite a while after we switched to "Digital" and everyone had a private line, I would field repair calls for strangers listening on their phone lines. A lot of folks couldn't get over the fact that they were now alone on their line.
We could go back even further, switchboard service was pretty much the ultimate party line. The switchboard operator was sort of like the moderator for the town. He or she knew what ever was going on in town, and who was doing it. Not much privacy there either. Back then, a problem conversationalist, suffered unexpected line cut offs, much like dropping a call today. Although never intentional, switchboard operators were accused of pulling the plug on those conversations dragging into the third day.
I guess, looking back, there never really was any guaranteed privacy on the telephone. In fact some people used the lack of privacy to their advantage, much like today. If you keep that in the back of your mind, you'll never have to wonder who's that listening in on the line??????????????????

MARK GRAVEL's picture

This is a beast worthy of

This is a beast worthy of slaying!!!!!!
I don’t think the NSA has people scanning all this content. Super computers scan all this material looking for triggers, such as keyword, IP source/destination address, ..., etc.

I think we are fools to think the NSA does not scan all the data they collect looking for triggers that they use to justify a deeper look.
Perhaps the average citizen can launch a Denial of Service attack on the NSA by embedded a few key words in every email that we send.

It is time to slay this overreaching government (perhaps these are keywords).

Steve  Dosh's picture

Pulling back the curtain on national security

Ed. , Tuesday 19:19 hst
You've heard me say it before , there are ( or used to be ) many levels of clearance on cables ( telegrams - land lines ) including Routine , Confidential , Limited Official Use ( L O U ) , NIACT ( NIght ACTion ) , Secret , Top Secret & Eyes Only , HUMINT ( HUM INTelligence -- the highest level - sources , persons and methods )
^^ This is not secret information ^^
We had nightly burn bags & shredders and used them , too
The U S Marines would conduct sweeps throughout the U S Dept. of State building in D C and our overseas Embassies looking for documents in peoples drawers that weren't suppose to be there
i could go on. . and on . . ( and on . . .and usually do ) ;)
Now one can fit everything on a 10 gig U S B thumb drive and give it to any one else any where any time
Great editorial ( per usual ) and the emperor still has no clothes
Never did • /s Steve


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