What the NSA Does and Doesn't Do

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this phone is tapped sticker

They’re listening… [williac / Flickr]

It’s only taken a month following James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s NYT story about domestic spying for the first official challenges to the Bush Administration’s NSA policy. They came yesterday, in the form of two lawsuits: one headed by the ACLU and one by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Both suits take the same line of legal attack: that the NSA’s domestic surveillance has a chilling effect on the communication of all kinds of people who have frequent dealings — e-mails, phone conversations — with people in countries that might be of… special interest. The plaintiffs are a motley group, made up of constitutional scholars and a British-born provocateur, GITMO detainee defense attorneys and Larry Diamond, an academic who advised the Bush Administration on the democratization of Iraq. And also Greenpeace.

One of the plaintiffs in particular probably knows at least as much about the NSA as the NSA knows about him: James Bamford was the first journalist to write in depth about the NSA, starting in 1982 with The Puzzle Palace when most people hadn’t even heard of it. (“No Such Agency” is, after all, its long-time only half-jokey name.) That first book was written in the wake of the NSA’s first domestic spying flap — the scandal that led to FISA n the first place. In the years since, Bamford has written extensively about the NSA and maintained relationships to current and former agents.

So, in our first show about the larger issue of Presidential Power, a look at a not-so-secret secret agency: at its mandate, its history, and what it’s doing now.

James Bamford

Author, The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets

Patrick Radden Keefe

Author, Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping

Laurence Tribe

Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School

Author, On Reading the Constitution among many other books and articles

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  • A little yellow bird

    Wouldn’t it’ve been nice if “The Paper of Withheld Record” woulda given us this sort of important info a bit earlier, like the Fourth Estate is supposed to do? You’re going down, NYT! Just like all the rest of the print and other mass media! But especially YOU! Some day when all of Team Bush’s horse manure comes to trial, the insiders at NYT will go on trial for aiding and abetting war crimes, too. AMEN!

  • Potter

    ALYB you have to give them credit as well. And they have been on the case since. (You go to war with the paper you have.)

  • A little yellow bird

    No way, “Potter”! The WWW is decimating all of these institutions anyway, and I say so be it. The only motive the NYT had for finally telling us little people about the National Voyeur Agency when it finally did is the WWW was gonna nail the story first anyway.

  • A little yellow bird

    Brendan & Co: I’d love to hear Mr. Bamford say anything about John Poindexter’s antics and Echelon. I think many people are barely aware of these things.

  • Potter

    ALYB– who was going to nail this? Wasn’t it a NYT reporter who was coming out with a book on this( Clay Risen)? Who on the WWW is doing the reporting that Lichtblau, Bergman Shane and Van Natta are now doing on this?

  • Potter

    Thank you for the show and great guests but It made me want to get into bed and pull the covers over my head.

    Lawrence Tribe, who said Al Gore should have been president, should long ago have been on the Supreme Court.

  • A little yellow bird

    “Potter”: Best check your down comforter for radio frequency ID tags before you hide under it. Besides, beds are never safe–that’s where Mata Hari did her main intelligence-gathering.

  • A little yellow bird

    BTW, where is everybody tonight? Whaddaya think–that the spooks don’t already have a list they’re checking twice of who’s been naughty or nice to Team Bush? Go on and comment–some of us birds carryin’ flu against the Empire are gonna end up down at Mo’ Guano Bay or some other part of the Gonzales Gulag-a-Go-Go anyway, just for show–to keep everyone else’s beaks shut in fear. That’s how the buggers always win, man!

  • Potter

    I got out from under the covers to find this for you ALYB on James ( not Clay) Risen’s scoop.


    Beyond the issue that the NYTimes held this information for a year, they have been doing an admirable job reporting since the story broke.

    I am still waiting for inforamtion about how the WWW was going to break this.

  • A little yellow bird

    “Potter”: I think I’m mistaken about the WWW on that one–I meant that the NYT was about to lose the scoop to another source: but their motives were not noble, I mean. They still suck.

  • jc

    None of these “listen on-line” things on this site work on my machine so I really rely on broadcast radio to hear this show. But thanks to the childish concepts of the programers of WCAI, WNAN & WZAI that there was somebody out there in radioland who would rather listen to the drivel of propaganda of the MA governor about what great things he thinks he has done for which he also thinks people should be in gratitude and to the apparent inability to turn on his microphone, instead of R Open Source, we seemed to get sequences of segments of other programs interspersed with each other and inserted between two pieces, perhaps ten minutes each, of this show plus about a minute of sign off at the end. Hardly enough to be much informed. When the book comes out, maybe I can get a copy at the library to find out who said what on this show and what it was finally about.


  • cheesechowmain

    Enjoyable discussion and excellent backgrounder. From my perspective, the last question Chris raised had the most weight behind it. A whole show could be devoted to this last question. Professor Tribe’s description of a supine electorate sounds both accurate and troubling. Citizens get the government they deserve.

  • Potter

    jc- why can’t you listen when they have the mp3 up?

    Cheesechowmain I often, out of frustration, think the same thing about getting the government we deserve, but then I say “Hey, I don’t deserve it!”. There are many others out there who don’t either- including yourself I’ll bet.

    I don’t remember what Chris last questsion was but if it was “what can we do?” I agree.

    ALYB- I don’ think it helps things to trash the NYT. The NYT is still depended upon, referred to by many people who do not have time to surf the net. We need an informed citizenry more than ever. The NYT is cited and linked all over the place for it’s reporting.

    Also I don’t think extreme positions help matters. For instance those who voted for the third party candidate in 2000 out of idealism or disgust are partly responsible for where we are now. You go to war with the army you have, you don’t shoot at it. Criticize, yes. I just fired off a complaint to the public editor at the NYT about an issue I had with them, but I am not about to trash them totally. Find me John Burns, James Bennet, Steve Erlanger ( and on ) reporting on the blogs.

    Regarding why the Times broke the story when they did, neither you or I really know. It could be because the Patriot Act is soon to be up for renewal. But if your mindset is negative you would not be open to such a possibility. That’s when a stance is more important than all else. That’s repeating the same mistakes as those who we criticize.

  • Potter

    Here is the NYTimes article mentioned on the show a couple of times: Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led to Dead Ends”. The link may be good for only a few more days. It begins:

    “In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month.

    But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans.

    F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency, which was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans’ international communications and conducting computer searches of foreign-related phone and Internet traffic, that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans’ privacy.”

    How about this revelation? Again from the article:


    F.B.I. field agents, who were not told of the domestic surveillance programs, complained they often were given no information about why names or numbers had come under suspicion. A former senior prosecutor, who was familiar with the eavesdropping programs, said intelligence officials turning over the tips “would always say that we had information whose source we can’t share, but it indicates that this person has been communicating with a suspected Al Qaeda operative.” He said, “I would always wonder, what does ‘suspected’ mean?” (end quote)

  • Potter

    This is good. A statement by Christopher Hitchens part of the ACLU NSA lawsuit.

  • Am I missing something here? Of course we all cry for the homies having their phones tapped and their e-mail filtered by big brother. Indeed, take ‘im down! But shouldn’t we be talking about the problem of any single institute having the power to monitor not only US citizens but peace loving citizens of any nation? Or is this just another one those American NIMBY things?

  • Potter

    Laurence Tribe wrote a letter in answer to Rep. Conyers (of the House Judiciary) inquiry on the subject. I have long admired what a great constitutional scholar and legal mind we have in him. Alas he’s been waiting in the wings forever……

    Laurence Tribe’s Response to Rep. Conyers

  • RunningUtes

    Would it be possible to highlight the free resources that are available to the public if they are worried about security. PGP/GPG is a free program that uses an incredibly strong system of encryption of public and private keys. If an individual uses this to encrypt their communications, NO ONE ELSE can actually read their emails.

    I think that people should be aware that when they communicate through email it is like writing a message on a postcard for all to read.

  • Chris,

    I doubt that the NSA has more search power than Google or computer power than Bill Gates. The public sector doesn’t get that great of funding. I have taken behind-the-scenes tours of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and their computer equipment is less advanced than many private companies and institutions of higher learning…

  • A little yellow bird

    “anhhung18901”: You MUST be kidding! The “public sector” gets the greatest funding of all, especially the war-powers part. Also, the NSA (commonly referred to as “No Such Agency”) and other covert ops get funded “off-budget” or with “black budgets”; the CIA (or “Cocaine-Importing Agency, as it is derisively but accurately also called) has used crack profits to fund covert ops. Also, if we’re allowed to know anything about these agencies, then what lies beneath our radar is like an iceberg’s bottom bulk. They can, and do, do whatever they want to.

  • tbrucia

    An interesting aspect of NSA surveillence is how it weakens the so-called war on terrorism. Essentially, by making citizens fearful of government, the bi-lateral conflict (US v. terrorist) becomes a tri-lateral conflict (citizens v. govt v. terrorist). I fail to see how the creation of a Big Brother in DC — based on deceit and covert surveillance of the U.S. public — creates a common front between the Federal Government and the citizens living in the U.S. I suspect that stupidity and arrogance are, as is often the case, at fault.

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  • “tbrucia”, the tri should be a quadra. Insular America wonders why so many people in the world are angry at the “most democratic and free” nation (or was that Empire) on earth. The NSA is just another reason. Other nations’ citizens must also fear intrusion from the US gov’t, but under US law this is actually legal!

  • bft

    Potter, jc, a technical note: the mp3 download works, but takes 4 or 5 hours to download on a 56k modem, which there are still good reasons to have instead of cable, dsl, wi-fi, or satellite.

  • Potter

    Two terrrific editorials this Sunday, the first in the New York Times, the second from the Washington Post

    Spies, Lies, and Wiretaps

    Bad Targeting

  • Potter

    bft: I have a high speed cable connection and download the mp3’s in a half a minute or so. Do you mean good reason to HAVE a cable connection ( as opposed to “instead of cable”)?

  • roslistener

    A very good program. My only quibble is with James Bamford assertion that it was the US which cracked the German ‘Enigma’ code. He really should know better. It was Polish mathematicians who did most of the work – long before the start of WWII.

  • Nikos

    roslistener: “It was Polish mathematicians who did most of the work – long before the start of WWII”

    …and finished by the Bletchley Park Brits after they kinda sorta stole the Poles’ decoding tricks. I wonder if Bamford said ‘Enigma’ in confusion with the US breaking of the Japanese naval/diplomatic codes.

  • Nikos

    To any still interested in this thread, click here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB23/

  • jc

    Potter and bft: Thanks for the suggestions and tips. This machine (ie., I guess, I myself) cannot seem to donwload the software needed and have any idea where it goes in the machine (can’t ever find such things again) or how to access it when needed, how to direct content downloads to the proper application programs to run them, etc. The hardware is perhaps too old to install operating system versions recent enough to handle such downloads. Wouldn’t know how to transfer wanted items from this machine to a newer one if I could afford a newer one (not even any backup software on this vintage ’94 machine.) This machine owes me nothing more but it’s my only means even though it is getting too tired to be able to use my rather unstable flow of electricity to even turn on and boot up. But thanks for the effort.


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