6 June 2013
A Simple Primer on Global Listening

By Loring Wirbel


When the UK Guardian published direct orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to Verizon on June 5, many readers did not have the slightest idea what they were looking at.  The methodology used by the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance is not new - what was new in the story was the direct proof that presidents from Reagan to Obama have consistently lied about what the NSA does, domestically and internationally.  Authors such as James Bamford, Duncan Campbell, Desmond Ball, Nicky Hager, and Matthew Aid have been disclosing the details about this global system for years.  It seems as though it's time for another refresher tutorial so that people understand what their government does on a daily basis, so they don't use ridiculous terms like "warrantless wiretap.":

The United States exited World War 2 with plenty of new global bases, acquired in some cases from the UK, or established as U.S. forces drove the Japanese west across the Pacific.  British authorities were worried about having signals intelligence fall out of the hands of Anglo-Saxon nations, so they talked the U.S. into signing the UKUSA Treaty in 1946, which apportions signals intelligence duties across U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand -- and no one else.  UKUSA remains highly classified today, 67 years later.

The miserable status of signals intelligence collection during the Korean War spurred Harry Truman into creating the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, MD in 1952.  The mere existence of NSA was not disclosed until 1956.  It has since become the second biggest intelligence agency by budget, spending roughly $12 billion annually.

When the U.S. was going through its base-building frenzy in the 1950s to establish a nuclear weapons infrastructure, it also built secret bases around the world to gather critical military intelligence everywhere on the planet.  Many bases were in global hotspots like Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.  The most common form of ground-based SIGINT base at the time was a massive series of concentric dipole antenna rings, variously referred to as Elephant Cages, Flare-9's, Classic Bullseye, or Wullenweber arrays.  Although the main focus was offshore, plenty of SIGINT bases were opened on domestic U.S. soil, in locations such as Winter Harbor, ME; Fort Gordon, GA; Medina Annex, TX; Two Rock Ranch, CA; and Skaggs Island, CA.

In 1960, the Air Force established the National Reconnaissance Office to manage spy satellite programs.  NRO subsequently became a DoD intelligence agency in its own right, and the largest intelligence agency by budget, currently spending around $16 billion annually.  Throughout the 1960s, NRO concentrated on primitive imaging satellites aimed at missile fields in the Soviet Union, though that was to change as electronic integration improved.

NSA got caught up in the mid-1970s probes of intelligence agencies, and was forced to reveal domestically-aimed programs like SHAMROCK, though few in Congress asked if its international programs really aimed at the Cold War targets that were supposed to be NSA's bread and butter.  The so-called reforms Congress put in place created a new top-secret court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  All the judicial members of FISC and all its rulings are top secret.  The court is supposed to monitor the activity of the NSA.  The public learned for the first time in 2005 that there is also a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Appeals Court, but it did not convene until the 21st century, because the FISC never rejected an NSA request until the post-9/11 period.

When FISC began rejecting some Bush administration requests, forcing the convening of FISAC, George Bush issued executive orders that allowed NSA to bypass FISA requirements and conduct domestic surveillance as it saw fit.  Congress codified this procedure in its 2008 FISA "reforms."

Bobby Ray Inman, director of the NSA in the Carter years, believed in faster deployment of advanced integrated circuits into spy satellites.  As a result, new satellites were fielded in the 1980s that allowed real-time digital delivery of images and electronic intelligence from phone calls and computer messages, directly from geosynchronous orbit to ground stations.  NSA and NRO worked together to define new satellites such as Jumpseat, Ranger, and Advanced Orion, some of which sported unfurlable antennas as large as two football fields!  As a result, NSA shut down many of its ground stations in the 1980s, and opened new satellite downlink stations in Menwith Hill, UK; Buckley Field, CO; Bad Aibling, Germany; and other locations.  NSA also opened special ground stations at Yakima, WA and Sugar Grove, VA that intercepted communications from commercial satellites in orbit.

Two policy changes took place during this time without input from the public or Congress: Because satellites in geosynchronous orbit cover the planet in an RF footprint by their very nature, interception within the domestic U.S. became the rule, not the exception.  FISA rules or no, NSA was collecting everything globally - it simply could never acknowledge doing so.  Also, the agency established to intercept military communications of adversaries slowly was tasked with intercepting all commercial and consumer/civilian communications on the planet.  This was a massive expansion, requiring many more employees and facilities in the U.S. and abroad.

In the latter years of the Clinton administration, a significant furor was raised over the code name Echelon, which referred to a specific Compaq Computer client-server architecture for tracking communications through the use of key words.  Echelon was not the global network - this had been built over the previous four decades as a basic infrastructure of NSA and NRO missions.

Following Sept. 11 and passage of the Patriot Act, George Bush used the FISA Bypass as a cover for allowing the NSA to implement Stellar Wind, a program to put packet-sniffing equipment inside telephone switching centers inside the U.S.  This equipment, manufactured by Narus, Cisco, Blue Coat, and other companies, allows IP packets used in Internet communications to be probed deeply for both traffic analysis and content analysis.  Meanwhile, NSA was trying to shift from the circuit-switched telephony world of the past to the IP-based world of the future by implementing global programs that also allowed automated filtering and data mining of massive amounts of traffic.  Programs such as Trailblazer and ThinThread did not always work so well, though they cost a bundle.

U.S. wireline phone companies were not too crazy about being lured into this, but agreed to have interception equipment placed in the heart of their networks.  When Joe Nacchio was ousted from Qwest Communications, he claimed in a court hearing that NSA had forced him out when he refused to have such equipment added to packet switching networks.

The latest kerfuffle involving NSA, FISC, and Verizon illustrates the fact that NSA needs to work a lot harder with wireless cellular networks.  Some communications can be picked up using wireless methods, some phone calls and texts transferred to the wireline network at base stations can be intercepted at central switching centers, but NSA also needs the call records maintained by wireless operators to perform detailed traffic analysis.

Of course, there is far too much traffic collected for the NSA to be able to analyze using human agents.  That's why automated data mining and filtering tools like ThinThread are so important.  And this is why the NSA was running out of storage space in the Baltimore-Washington corridor to store all that global communication it had intercepted.  NSA asked Congress for the money four years ago to create a new Storage Station Freedom in Bluffdale, Utah to store the massive amount of voice and IP traffic it collects abroad, and here at home.  The Bluffdale facility is slated to open in late July of 2013.  But of course, you're unlikely to hear about its grand opening, as it's merely one more element of NSA's daily business you are not allowed to know.

Global Network