NSA's Warrantless Eavesdropping Targets Innocent Americans

Remember when the U.S. government said it was only spying on terrorists? Anyone with any common sense knew it was lying—power without oversight is always abused—but even I didn’t think
it was this bad:

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.

Warrants are a security device. They protect us against government abuse of power.

Posted on October 15, 2008 at 12:39 PM80 Comments


John October 15, 2008 1:01 PM

Seriously, MQ? You wouldn’t mind if I, or some other random person listened and commented on the “funny noises” you make?

MQ October 15, 2008 1:20 PM

No, not at all. I suppose if I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t be, I might be worried.

But really, these guys are just having fun. It’s no different that back in the old days when the telephone switchboard operator would eaves-drop into others’ conversations. They’re just having a good laugh. They aren’t planning on using any of it in court, since they really can’t anyways.

I prefer to focus on the benefits rather than sounding some knee-jerk civil liberties violation alarm! What if in the same context, the NSA picks up a conversation where someone is bragging about a murder of a child or something like that?

Is it worth a little clueless humor on your part (I mean really, who cares if one or two agents in DC know you’re having an affair?) versus saving lives and preventing crime? I think it is…

Rachel Chalmers October 15, 2008 1:25 PM

Okay, MQ, I’ll bite. What if you aren’t doing anything wrong, but you’ve somehow annoyed someone powerful? What if they decide to frame you? What if they use bits of your personal conversations they have illegally eavesdropped on to build a watertight case against you?

“Oh, but they wouldn’t break the law…” Nope, sorry, we have already established that they do.

The Panopticon was designed for oversight and control. Further reading: 1984, Discipline and Punish, Stasiland.

Edward S. Marshall October 15, 2008 1:28 PM

“I suppose if I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t be, I might be worried.”

I shouldn’t mind my privacy being invaded if I have nothing to hide? Is that really the argument you’re making here?

The point here is that those recordings shouldn’t have been made in the first place without a warrant, not that some people have a predisposition to acting like children.

techreseller October 15, 2008 1:29 PM


Please move to Europe. It is not a knee-jerk civil liberties reaction. Lets say the murderer does “confess” on the phone. Since it was an illegal wiretap the evidence will get thrown out. You may end up freeing the murderer forever because of double jeopardy. And the I am not doing anything wrong so I do not care just does not hold water. I do not care if I am just catching up with my mother. Government get out and stay out.

kurt wismer October 15, 2008 1:39 PM

“They aren’t planning on using any of it in court, since they really can’t anyways.”

just because they can’t (in theory) use it in court doesn’t mean they can’t/won’t use it in other illegitimate or harmful ways…

MQ October 15, 2008 1:40 PM

These scenarios you all bring up are rediculous. Again, I would not be worried at all. They would never “get anything on me” because I would never, have never had anything to hide.

My “Privacy” can only be assured when it is not running over PUBLIC medium, for one thing.

And finally, these are intelligence-gathering excersizes, they are not evidence-gathering in any form. They are simply not admissable.

Thoria October 15, 2008 1:43 PM

So, @MQ, because you’re doing nothing wrong, you don’t mind NSA installing a video camera in your bathroom?

Jason October 15, 2008 1:59 PM

It is the idea of an official, government sponsored channel for intelligence gathering being used for puerile amusement and titillation that disgusts me, MQ; not whether or not said participants are “doing anything wrong”.

Would you want the DMZ to announce over the intercom the number of traffic violations you had and of what type every time you renew your driver’s license? Doesn’t matter, you say, since you have none?

What if your dentist had a “wall of shame” posting the worst mouths and the names of the offenders with an email address to ridicule them and you were among them? Teeth fine, you say?

What if each of your neighbors was able to push a button and see what you were watching on television? Dancing with the Stars, House, Lost, no problem. What if you flip through something less desirable and morally repugnant? Ah, you can explain it to your neighbors when they come over to mock your bad taste.

Your choice in music then? If you went to the store and bought a CD only to have the purchase read over the intercom along with your name and address, would that be okay?

Your telephone conversations may never expose any of your secrets, but this is not about simply the telephone. This is about being monitored in an official capacity but having the results used in a completely unprofessional manner.

This is not about the NSA monitoring calls, this is about NSA employees, individuals, taking the most “entertaining” calls, sharing them, and making fun of them.
This is not the job I want my government doing.

Jim October 15, 2008 2:01 PM

It is becoming more and more obvious: the US is rapidly moving toward a soft neo-facism. I’ll just quote the wikipedia article on the definition:

“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” – Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism.

Jep, that’s it. From a sociological background (which I have in parts) it is obvious. Just my 2 cents, though.

MQ October 15, 2008 2:06 PM

Phone in your house: Private. Phone conversation going over public infrastructure/medium (phone company, phone lines..etc) not private.

Camera in my house: My house = private residence, phone calls over public infrastructure=subject to monitoring since they share infrastructure.

The phone call NO LONGER BELONGS TO YOU once it leaves your private domain.

Let me give you a real sceario: You’re going on a trip. Do you let someone come into your home and search your luggage? No. So you get to the airport and they search your luggage. WHERE’S THE CIVIL LIBERTIES VIOLATION ALARM!!!??? :p Now your luggage has left your private domain and it becomes public domain. While doing the search, an agent finds some embarrasing stsuff in there, like some whips and chains and they start joking to each other about it. I have a one word question: So?

Mirror by design October 15, 2008 2:09 PM

Honestly, you have a couple of guys/girls, having to monitor things they might not event want to hear, at one point they become descensibilized and they start having fun on the job.

How many people have changed their co-worker password, send mail for beer etc etc.

Obviously the operational capacity of their interception network is not know from the public but hey behind all this there is a human. And even if there is pre-filtering done by a computer by phonetic that would then reditect the stream to some operation, what about some phone sex match some arabic pattern or even the guy’s/girl’s that implement the phonetic engine just added some easter eggs.


Just being in irak is putting the complete country in deep shit..And there is far worst problem here and there go figure.

paul October 15, 2008 2:12 PM

Oh, and just for the record, anyone who thinks “they can’t use it in court” is a good safety argument, read about the LAPD’s “handoff” techniques for laundering information gained by wiretaps.

Chris Drost October 15, 2008 2:14 PM

Jess — yeah, probably a troll.

Still, the question MQ raises is interesting.

I think my response is, “I know that for you, your privacy is not very important to you, because you feel like you have nothing to hide. My response is that, even though I don’t feel in particular like I have anything to hide, my privacy is still important for me. For other reasons. Call me sentimental, if you want.”

A more reasoned argument was given in concert by a law professor and a professional interrogator in two videos that are on Google Video right now, titled “Don’t Talk to the Police.” Has it been featured here before? (I forget.) It’s not, strictly speaking, about wiretapping, but it /is/ about why a normal individual with nothing to hide might want to still keep their privacy with regards to the police.

MQ October 15, 2008 2:17 PM

Oh, you poor trolls, being rediculed by your own actions. I would be upset as well. But alas, I don’t these problems.

Thom October 15, 2008 2:27 PM

Ok MQ, answer this one, do you, your friends, your family members, or your co-workers ever talk about you or each other? Someone you care about have an alcohol or drug problem? Someone you care about commit a crime, small or large? Any secret adoptions, abortions, affairs, mistakes, business deals, or so on? How’d you like such information recorded on someone you care about and, if not used against them now, used against them some day if the political climate changed? There goes a job or career opportunity for someone. Railed against the president? Maybe that’s considered a terrorist act next year and you and your family are watched and targetted for decades. Want to have to pick up the phone and call the police or an attorney anytime anyone tells you of suspicious or criminal activity, no matter how small or uncertain, in order to prevent being labelled an accomplice and charged by a vindictive prosecutor or government?

Evan October 15, 2008 2:32 PM

@MQ: Must be sweet being totally perfect.

Assuming you’re earnest and not just making things up to troll, that kind of thinking is going to get you in trouble.

MickMac October 15, 2008 2:38 PM

Srew MQ. I don’t want those sonsabitches listening to MY calls or any other civilians. This The United States of America not communist Russia. The jackbooted thugs have gone to far.

MQ October 15, 2008 2:39 PM

The NSA is not interested in this type of information, nor are they using it for any other purpose than a good laugh. Try to keep this discussion in context.

Here they are, these bozos at the NSA, yes being a little unprofessional and making fun of some rather raunchy phone calls. How does this damage you? Not only is the caller(s) NOT identified (It’s an anonymous conversation), but also I bet if you were in there, you’d be laughing it up right with the rest of them!

Now, chill out with the civil liberties violation alarms going off all over the place. But let me be clear: If I have a choice between monitoring random calls for suspicious words and being at risk for being labeled as having violated civil liberties in doing so, ya darn right I’d choose to protect those same people complaining, no matter how much they think they know what’s better for them.

Jason October 15, 2008 2:43 PM

Just some dudes chillaxing around riffin’ on us peeps. It’s all good, you know.

Accept it is behavior that should be reprimanded. I know the NSA is monitoring stuff and that isn’t the problem I have. I have a problem with them using their top secret magic surveillance equipment in order to make fun of us and not to stop criminal activity.

Grow up.

MQ October 15, 2008 2:52 PM

How is it abusing power if they are not acting upon the information? It’s not. Wrong answer.

Everyone here is making this bigger than it really is. I think Freud would have something to say about that.

Anonymous October 15, 2008 3:00 PM

The NSA is interested in that kind of information. They were specifically directed to get blackmail information on diplomats to help get public support and members in the “coallition of the willing” for the invasion of Iraq.

Ryan October 15, 2008 3:24 PM

It’s really important to not that these are Americans in the Middle East using middle eastern carriers. NSA is just doing their normal intercepts of cellphones in the area (trying to catch guys planning things like laying an IED). They stumble upon a US person calling home making pillow talk every once in a while. Now, they SHOULD discard it, but instead they are letting people listen in.

Is it wrong? Yes… but this isn’t the NSA listening to Jow Blow on his phone in New York. This is some US person working in Iraq or Afghanistan using a foreign carrier. NSA doesn’t target US people or phones without a warrent.

I hope this brings it down to Earth a bit….

Dale October 15, 2008 3:24 PM

Issue #1:
It’s just a couple of techs getting a laugh, until it isn’t.

You set up rules and laws of access, not to criminalize the casual intrusion of privacy, but to criminalize the malicious acts.

“I wasn’t stalking my ex”
“I wasn’t passing info on to robbers”
“I wasn’t blackmailing him”

Issue #2:
Someone has been caught in a lie, doing something illegal.

Usually, when someone is caught doing something illegal on the government watch, the refrain is, “But it was for a good cause”. But what does one say in this case?

BJ October 15, 2008 3:40 PM

Wow. Who’d of thought that actually doing their job, spying on overseas communications, would get the NSA into so much hot water?

The outrage is the unprofessional treatment of captured info, not the capture itself.

JoeV October 15, 2008 3:48 PM

“…Let me give you a real sceario: You’re going on a trip. Do you let someone come into your home and search your luggage? No. So you get to the airport and they search your luggage. WHERE’S THE CIVIL LIBERTIES VIOLATION ALARM!!!??? :p Now your luggage has left your private domain and it becomes public domain. While doing the search, an agent finds some embarrasing stsuff in there, like some whips and chains and they start joking to each other about it. I have a one word question: So?…”

Specious argument. Flying on an airplane is a voluntary act; if you don’t permit them to search your luggage, you can’t fly, and simply have to find another method of travel. OTOH, having your telecoms ‘searched’ unknowingly is not about having something to hide; it’s about the intrinsic value of privacy.

“…The NSA is not interested in this type of information, nor are they using it for any other purpose than a good laugh. Try to keep this discussion in context…”

The problem with your statement is that if you permit these types of violations of the 1947 National Security Act on the basis that ‘it was employees doing it, not officially sanctioned’, you’ve just opened up the Mother of all Pandora’s Boxes. Heck, in the ‘private sector’ (I love that euphamism) corporations have been taken to court and successfully prosecuted for permitting just this sort of thing: employees breaking the law for personal fun.

I also wonder if James Bamford wasn’t fed another line of disinformation by NSA, like in his last book. This could be a ploy by NSA to make their abuses look like rouge elements in their employee base, not official policy.


Davi Ottenheimer October 15, 2008 4:16 PM

@ MQ

Marc, you really need to sit down and read some history and philosophy. You are embarrassing yourself.

Perhaps start by looking at the Writs of Assistance case and the causes for American Revolution.

Take your time, but it’s really not that hard to understand why abuse of power is a problem, and why surveillance should be managed carefully with controls like warrants and probable cause.

MQ October 15, 2008 4:30 PM

Again, this is not about abuse of power. Your embarrassing yourself by comparing anonymous fun to the American Revolution. If security guard laughs at someone on a camera at an airport, are they abusing their power? No. They are guilty of being childish and nothing more. What you propose is nothing more than to hamper intelligence and put everyone in danger. Preposterous, dangerous and naive.

Eric October 15, 2008 4:52 PM


You claim to be an “IT Security Expert”? I really hope you don’t work in the medical, financial or legal industries.*

You have a certain expectation of privacy if you are using a private phone to place a call to another private line.

Security guards at an airport are monitoring a semi-public (I would argue fully public) place where you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

*my guess would be govt.

kangaroo October 15, 2008 4:53 PM

I think MQ is a peeping-tom, trying to rationalize his behavior. They were changing their clothes without the drapes fully closed, so what he did wasn’t wrong at all! He was just using his telescope to look through a perfectly public opening near the bottom of the drapes!

And those damn cops thought he was doing something wrong, sittin’ there masturbating while watching that 12 year old girl.

Eric October 15, 2008 4:55 PM


Oh, I forgot. You mentioned that te PTSN is a PUBLIC medium? Only in the sense that anyone can connect to it, but that doesn’t give EVERYONE the right to my conversations! Do you really know how the phone system works?

sooth sayer October 15, 2008 5:01 PM

If it was a real news organization, I will believe it more. ABC/CBS/CNN/NBC . .before election .. come on are you really that gullible.

Though there is a pattern on believing almost everything someone says as true .. particularly if it points that government is bad/evil/stupid.

It’s ironic that these guys tell-all after they presumably were doing it for a long time.

Davi Ottenheimer October 15, 2008 5:03 PM

@ MQ

Marc, don’t worry. It is ok that you fail to understand what “abuse of power” means. Read any of the articles that Bruce provided as links and you will have a head start.

“you propose is nothing more than to hamper intelligence and put everyone in danger”

Uh huh. Your analysis is amazing. It appears from your comments here that you are the last person who should be talking about intelligence.

I have to admit, however, I find some of your conclusions on your blog enlightening:

“If you see a person being kind and generous, you cannot assume that person is not an Atheist”

Nor can you assume they are atheist.

“White collar crimes are committed by Christians and non-Christians alike”

Hard to believe?

“One cannot assume safety and tranquility in the home of a Christian, no more than you can in the home of an Atheist”

Did someone tell you to assume?

Cardinal Richelieu October 15, 2008 5:30 PM

Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.

Let someone give me six lines written in the hand of a man, however honest; I shall find in them something to have him hanged.

foxyshadis October 15, 2008 5:36 PM

I know it’s a troll, but for anyone who buys MQ’s argument that it’s all in good fun, no abuse of power: This article is just from the view of the low-level techs scanning the stuff. You really have absolutely no idea whether your name is going on a list of potential enemies, placed on law enforcement watch lists that will get you arrested at your next traffic stop, or harassed and stalked by someone who becomes obsessed. It could be for something as simple as shooting the breeze about a football game someone lost money on. If it doesn’t happen to you, you should be alarmed that it could happen to other innocents.

And you would never know, that’s the scary part, not just that it could happen. The current administration and even the last one have campaigned publicly for the right to secret enemies lists, secret gag orders, secret prosecutions, secret incarcerations, so what makes you feel safe? Just because you’re ethical and moral, do you match every ethic and moral of those who have taken the power to wreck your life on a whim? The justice system is imperfect, but at least it provides a level of transparency and recourse to those that are wronged.

Reality Check October 15, 2008 6:16 PM

…and the headlong rush continues as the US spares no effort to become more totalitarian than the former “Evil Empire” (Soviet Union) that it used to mock and malign…

Brandioch Conner October 15, 2008 6:49 PM

Come on people. Don’t feed the MQ troll.

If he was serious about this he’d be posting his name.

You know, like Bruce does. Like other people do.

Your PERSONAL conversations being recorded, STORED and then SHARED with other people … all of that without a WARRANT being issued …

There will always be people who defend that practice. Always.

And they will always (yes, always) use the same arguments of “if you’re not doing anything wrong then you should not care” and “if anyone can possibly find a way to record it then it is public”.

It’s like trying to argue against Fascism with a Fascist. How can YOU possible be against protecting your fellow people from the Threat of the Day?

Fascism begins when the efficiency of the Government becomes more important than the Rights of the People.

Not Secret Anymore October 15, 2008 7:06 PM


You began this with wanting to focus on the benefits of the NSA work. I read what you wrote as “some knee-jerk civil liberties violation” .. “versus saving lives”

The Wired story had this bit:

“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 [Supervisor] Berry’s attention.

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.”


BonTon October 15, 2008 7:30 PM

Here’s an example of how things can go wrong – without wrong doing on your part – Brandon Mayfield. They bugged his phone, violated his home, and detained him as a “material witness” (meaning no due-process) all over a mistake. If the fascists had observed due-process, would that mistake been noticed a bit sooner? Could very well be.

Here’s a great quote demonstrating the nature of the problem:

“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” – Cardinal Richelieu

Even honest citizens should worry about their words being used against them!

Jon Sowden October 15, 2008 8:05 PM

So, the PSTN is a public medium.

Is the postal service too? Can anyone open your mail and rifle through it, at any time, with no permission or oversight or reasonable cause required?

If not, why not? What makes that behaviour ok on the PSTN but not the mail service?

MQ October 15, 2008 8:46 PM

Safety versus anonymous fun. I’ll take the safety. I am much more relaxed knowing that people are listening to our lines. You are whining about some insignificant (poor taste) fun, and completely ignore the benefits. I guess this just proves that none of you have a clue. I love the fascists labels as well, shows me how far out there most of you are; it tells me I’m not dealing with level-headed, or reasonable people. Ignorance is bliss I suppose. But experience has taught me that arguing with these types of people is fruitless, so I respectfully bow out.

Brandioch Conner October 15, 2008 9:01 PM

“Safety versus anonymous fun. I’ll take the safety.”

Again, the same argument that comes up every time.

Let me put it into context for everyone else here.

The Declaration of Independence. The people who signed it knew that it would be used as their death warrant if they lost the war. Yet they still signed their names.

They chose Freedom over safety.

By your “logic”, prisons should be the safest places on Earth.

Even people 200+ years ago understood that there is no safety in submission. They knew they would not be safe. But they could be Free.

And ever since then, people like you have been trying to justify the loss of those Freedoms by claiming that Freedom makes you less safe than submission does.

bryant October 15, 2008 9:38 PM

Fourth Amendment – Protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

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. 

As an American citizen I hold the constitution to be the ultimate law, MQ. I do not have to explain my need for privacy, rather the government must supply a compelling and reasonable explanation for depriving me of my privacy. And the government must obtain a warrant which show probable cause.

So you don’t support the constitution?

If you are only free to do the “right” thing, only free when you have “nothing to hide” then you are not free.

I find your support of this fascism to be traitorous; better hope real American patriots don’t call you to account.

Karl Lembke October 15, 2008 10:26 PM

Interestingly enough, just the other day I spotted a post at the Volokh Conspiracy by Orin Kerr, on this very subject. He thinks this particular invasion of privacy was very likely perfectly constitutional.

How so?

1) The satellite phones were provided by the military, and the users were notified they would be subject to monitoring.

2) …”monitoring of individuals who were not U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or otherwise had strong connections to the U.S. would not implicate the Fourth Amendment.”

3) In the case of “…U.S. citizens who were monitored abroad who were not in the military and not agents of a foreign power…” Satellite phones may well be covered under the laws covering cordless phones — if you’re going to broadcast your signal over public airwaves, you lose much of your expectation of privacy.

More details at Kerr’s post,


Michael Ash October 15, 2008 10:35 PM

I’d suggest that if people like MQ feel safer knowing their government is tracking everybody, that they should move to a country where this is legal, and let the rest of us keep our freedoms here.

SB October 15, 2008 11:05 PM


You seriously dont think this is an abuse of power? The Government continually claimed that it was only monitoring phone conversations for the purpose of fighting terrorism and crime. It said it was going to protect peoples privacy. Warrants were meant to be obtained before any monitoring was done. When presented with this evidence it is reasonable for a person to assume that conversations not related to terrorism or criminal activity should be treated by the Government as private.

Regardless of what you think, most people do believe that they have an expectation of privacy when making a phone call. Privacy laws in many countries actually take this expectation of privacy for phone calls for granted. The very fact that warrants are required to monitor phone conversations (in theory anyway) also supports this expectation of privacy. After all, why do you bother with warrants if everyone already assumes that the Government can and will listen to any conversation any time it wants to? The answer is that you dont. Warrants are there to prevent unreasonable search and seizure, therefore if the Government is taking an action that requires a warrant without first obtaining one then there is a very good chance that an unreasonable search or seizure is occurring.

This is abuse because it violates a persons rights specifically the right to privacy. Its abuse because there are well defined guidelines for legally performing this type of monitoring and the Government did not follow them.

Erin October 16, 2008 6:50 AM

MQ, departing in an ad-hominem huff is hardly “respectfully bowing out.”

Like MQ, I used to not understand why privacy was important to people who had done no wrong. But as an adult I started to realize that having done wrong was not always a necessary precondition for getting on the bad side of the government. In the US, the government is changing all of the time, and most of the people in it have different ideas on how to govern than I do. Some of them may be inclined to pass laws against things that are not wrong, and should not be illegal. (There are such laws now, in fact.) With that understanding, I came to value privacy as insurance against an unfriendly government.

The perfect solution, of course, is: don’t elect these people. But realistically, as a highly educated person, I’m part of an elite special interest group, and my views are far from universal; so I can’t count on the masses doing the things I want them to do. Privacy is my imperfect solution for mitigating the risks of democracy.

UNiHacker October 16, 2008 6:54 AM

I don’t plan on blowing up buildings or bombing people so I’m not to worried about the government listening to my phone calls.

You should see the NSA building they are putting up at Fort Gordon though, its HUGE.

Hacker Forums

Marco October 16, 2008 7:19 AM

A bit off-topic, but I didn’t want it to go silent: in the movie “Don’t Talk to the Police” on Google Video, Officer George Bruch starts saying how in countries like Italy and Spain interrogations involve physical abuse and how these Italian and Spanish Policeman can do pretty much whatever they want. Well this is not true, at least not in Italy: here in Italy there are strict rules about what police can and cannot do, and thanks God we still have Judges who will send to jail Cops that abuse their power. That said, just as a disclaimer: I am NOT a supporter of our premier Berlusconi, who is working hard to get Italy into a State with weaker human rights, such as USA and other European countries are doing.
Here there is no Italian NSA (there is the American NSA, of course), but we have problems with illegal eavesdropping: until a couple of years ago illegal eavesdropping has been privately carried on by the biggest telephone company in Italy.

Dan Linder October 16, 2008 9:12 AM

MQ wrote: “I suppose if I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t be, I might be worried.”

Aahh, but here’s another point (aside from the laughable “I’ve got nothing to hide.” defense – read the document by Daniel J. Solove @ Washington University Law School for an indepth look)…

Just because you think you’re not doing anything wrong doesn’t make that true.

Just because I didn’t know the speed-limit was 35 and I was doing 45 doesn’t get me out of a ticket…

Just because I didn’t know that talking about kicking my representative in the groin was illegal (could be construed as a physical threat), doesn’t matter in a court of law.

And once they have your voice on tape making these statements, who says they have to use it right away. If you say something today and you run for office in 10 years, who’s to say this tape won’t accidentally leak to a reporter or get a new timestamp after the laws make it perfectly legal?


Daylight October 16, 2008 11:46 AM

While most commentators have had valid points here, I have to sound a little comment off in support of “MQ”.
Being in a work environment can be stressful, and working at a place like NSA must have its pressure just the same.
Name me one single place that always adhere to protocol, always stays serious, always acts professionally, always keep the somber tone it projects outwards always ringing inwards as well, and I’ll show you a portrait of hell. No one could work there. The real infringement, in my opinion, is that the information about these harmless jokes reached the public.

JJ October 16, 2008 12:56 PM

I’ve been lurking here for years, first time posting, as we’re finally talking about a subject I have enough experience in to be relevant.
This is a non-issue. The reason why their calls are being listened to is to ensure they maintain OPSEC while deployed. You’ll note that the articles mention that the calls specifically eavesdropped upon American officers and troops. Everyone in the military is aware of the secret squirrels that do things like listen to phone calls, and thus to have an expectation of privacy, especially when there’s a chance you could be revealing pertinent details relating to the AOR, is to be in denial. It’s offensive to those of us who are extremely careful about OPSEC, but there are tards out there–sometimes very high ranking tards–that can’t shut up. The National Security Agency legally has its hands tied whenever a US person is involved in a communication (see USSID 18 at http://jya.com/nsa-ussid18.htm).
As far as operators sharing juicy cuts around, well, how boring is YOUR job? Sitting at a station with cans on your head for 12 hours listening to drivel will put you out faster than a punch to the jaw. These people aren’t robots, you know. In some cases, they’re 18 year old lower enlisted kids who are newly trained and barely qualified as grown-ups.

derf October 16, 2008 1:51 PM

The police specifically tell you “anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law”.

Think about your answer to “Do you know how fast you were going?”

“I don’t know” means you’re screwed.
If you try to be helpful and tell the cop a number just over the limit, you’ve just admitted your guilt.
If you tell him you were obeying the speed limit, and his radar says otherwise, you’ve now lied to the police and the cop has proof.

By law, if you answer this question – congratulations, you’re guilty.

Now, apply this same thinking not to just a few random calls, but every phone call you’ve ever made and see if there’s anything even possibly illegal or incriminating. Have you ever mentioned any of the target words: bomb, white powder, anthrax, al quaeda, fertilizer, C4, explosive, Osama, or any of the other keys they may be listening for?

You too can be on the no fly list – just say the wrong word on the wrong phone call and voila! Everyone in America with your name gets to be on the list with you, too.

crossbuck October 16, 2008 3:18 PM

Derf, if I was asked that question by the cop, all I’d say is, “All I know is what my speedometer showed”. It would be up to him to ask what it showed, and if he did that, I wouldn’t answer. I could also turn it around and ask, “When was the last time your radar was calibrated?”. The police have been known to falsify dates of radar calibrations to win speeding cases.

averros October 16, 2008 3:27 PM

Warrants are a security device. They protect
us against government abuse of power.

Yeah, right. Considering that the adherence to warrants is enforced by the same government, and that rules governing their applicability are written by, surprise, the government.

Warrants are a mere lipstick on the pig.

Power IS abuse. By definition.

Kristine October 17, 2008 4:18 AM

@Daylight: “Being in a work environment can be stressful, and working at a place like NSA must have its pressure just the same.”

That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

“The real infringement, in my opinion, is that the information about these harmless jokes reached the public.”


Jason October 17, 2008 12:16 PM

Re: JJ
“As far as operators sharing juicy cuts around, well, how boring is YOUR job? Sitting at a station with cans on your head for 12 hours listening to drivel will put you out faster than a punch to the jaw. These people aren’t robots, you know. In some cases, they’re 18 year old lower enlisted kids who are newly trained and barely qualified as grown-ups.”

They have policies in place forbidding this kind of thing (they should).

This incident had been made public.

Those who are indicated must be punished.

This will symbolically make everything better.

That’s all that matters: the appearance.

The American People hold the NSA and other gov’t drones to a higher standard of behavior even though those guys are just regular old folks, too.

JJ October 17, 2008 12:26 PM


I completely agree with you that they should be punished for being stupid, but my point was that it’s not an issue or anything the average American needs to worry about–it’s purely an OPSEC enforcement issue among certain military personnel.

K October 19, 2008 1:20 PM

All good arguments (both for and against). A point I didn’t see mentioned (please forgive me if I missed it) – The Green Zone is (to the best of my knowledge, and I’m NOT an expert on it) an area in a military conflict, logistically supported by the US Military, and therefore the US Government (USG). ALL communications conducted via USG-sponsored/hosted medium (official or otherwise) are subject to interception – and all equipment pieces (i.e. telephone units, etc) are “supposed to” be marked as such. What specifically concerns me is why an Arabic linguist was listening to a “cut” in English… Routine surveillance of US communications and surveillance of intelligence-related communications are supposed to be completely different collection systems, intentionally separated and contained, and in theory not accessible by the other function…

YES, it’s true that all workplaces have those who (to some extent, greater or lesser) take liberties with the rules. That doesn’t make it right. The question herein becomes: can we trust the Government now to sanction those individuals performing these functions to ensure tighter control over their “appropriate” behavior? Remember, it’s an operator’s responsibility to cease a cut once they realize it doesn’t contain target value; it is then essentially these operators, engaged as they appear to be in “entertainment” for their own pleasure (which is also against the rules) who save these “cuts,” placing US Citizens’ information (privacy not discussed; the military essentially has little to none) into a repository where it never should have been, for potential misuse by others NOT engaged in “entertainment.” Innocuous (if not innocent) behavior can have (and I daresay has had) dire consequences…

Abuse of power/position? Yes. By the Government at large? No…not yet (that we know of, anyway). A seriously dangerous situation? Potentially dire…

HipHop Conspiracy October 19, 2008 4:16 PM

I wonder what sorts of high-tech intel/mil gadgets have been deployed in the past decade or so? Are those being abused with the same disregard for the rights of the targets as the surveillance infrastructure has been? Excuse one violation of rights and you invite far worse.

alethiophile October 19, 2008 6:43 PM

I would say that this is, in fact, a non-issue, if the only people being eavesdropped on are military personnel on the ground. The operators using the cuts for their own entertainment is unfortunate, but not that important. Not reading the articles that were linked, I got the impression that the calls were entirely domestic. That would have been a bad problem–not because the surveillance operators were being salacious, but because they had access to the calls at all (implying a major government domestic eavesdropping program).

Tamara October 19, 2008 6:50 PM

I hope this does not get swept under the rug or forgotten in the current economic stress–this is incredibly significant–acknowledging that even super special agencies have human factors that fail to Respect individuals and their legal rights is very important. Without training for respect for rights and dignity, for the laws and ethics of the land, all agency behaviors look like Nazi-ism.
This is the question of the future, will logic and ethics win out or will feudalism win over rationalism?

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