The NSA's Ragtime Surveillance Program and the Need for Leaks
A new book reveals details about the NSA’s Ragtime surveillance program:
A book published earlier this month, “Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry,” contains revelations about the NSA’s snooping efforts, based on information gleaned from NSA sources. According to a detailed summary by Shane Harris at the Washingtonian yesterday, the book discloses that a codename for a controversial NSA surveillance program is “Ragtime”—and that as many as 50 companies have apparently participated, by providing data as part of a domestic collection initiative.
Deep State, which was authored by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, also offers insight into how the NSA deems individuals a potential threat. The agency uses an automated data-mining process based on “a computerized analysis that assigns probability scores to each potential target,” as Harris puts it in his summary. The domestic version of the program, dubbed “Ragtime-P,” can process as many as 50 different data sets at one time, focusing on international communications from or to the United States. Intercepted metadata, such as email headers showing “to” and “from” fields, is stored in a database called “Marina,” where it generally stays for five years.
About three dozen NSA officials have access to Ragtime’s intercepted data on domestic counter-terrorism, the book claims, though outside the agency some 1000 people “are privy to the full details of the program.” Internally, the NSA apparently only employs four or five individuals as “compliance staff” to make sure the snooping is falling in line with laws and regulations. Another section of the Ragtime program, “Ragtime-A,” is said to involve U.S.-based interception of foreign counterterrorism data, while “Ragtime-B” collects data from foreign governments that transits through the U.S., and “Ragtime-C” monitors counter proliferation activity.
The whole article is interesting, as is the detailed summary, but I thought this comment was particularly important:
The fact that NSA keeps applying separate codenames to programs that inevitably are closely intertwined is an important clue to what’s really going on. The government wants to pretend they are discrete surveillance programs in order to conceal, especially from Congressional oversight, how monstrous they are in sum. So they’ll give a separate briefing on Trailblazer or what have you, and for an hour everybody in the room acts as if the whole thing is carefully circumscribed and under control. And then if somebody ever finds out about another program (say ‘Moonraker’ or what have you), then they go ahead and offer a similarly reassuring briefing on that. And nobody in Congress has to acknowledge that the Total Information Awareness Program that was exposed and met with howls of protest…actually wasn’t shut down at all, just went back under the radar after being renamed (and renamed and renamed).
He’s right. The real threat isn’t any one particular secret program, it’s all of them put together. And by dividing up the programs into different code names, the big picture remains secret and we only ever get glimpses of it.
We need whistleblowers. Much of the information we have about the NSA’s and the Justice Department’s plans and capabilities—think Echelon, Total Information Awareness, and the post-9/11 telephone eavesdropping program—is over a decade old.
Frank Rieger of the Chaos Computer Club got it right in 2006:
We also need to know how the intelligence agencies work today. It is of highest priority to learn how the “we rather use backdoors than waste time cracking your keys”-methods work in practice on a large scale and what backdoors have been intentionally built into or left inside our systems….
Of course, the risk of publishing this kind of knowledge is high, especially for those on the dark side. So we need to build structures that can lessen the risk. We need anonymous submission systems for documents, methods to clean out eventual document fingerprinting (both on paper and electronic). And, of course, we need to develop means to identify the inevitable disinformation that will also be fed through these channels to confuse us.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s mistreatment of Bradley Manning and its aggressive prosecution of other whistleblowers has probably succeeded in scaring any copycats. Yochai Benkler writes:
The prosecution will likely not accept Manning’s guilty plea to lesser offenses as the final word. When the case goes to trial in June, they will try to prove that Manning is guilty of a raft of more serious offenses. Most aggressive and novel among these harsher offenses is the charge that by giving classified materials to WikiLeaks Manning was guilty of “aiding the enemy.” That’s when the judge will have to decide whether handing over classified materials to ProPublica or the New York Times, knowing that Al Qaeda can read these news outlets online, is indeed enough to constitute the capital offense of “aiding the enemy.”
Aiding the enemy is a broad and vague offense. In the past, it was used in hard-core cases where somebody handed over information about troop movements directly to someone the collaborator believed to be “the enemy,” to American POWs collaborating with North Korean captors, or to a German American citizen who was part of a German sabotage team during WWII. But the language of the statute is broad. It prohibits not only actually aiding the enemy, giving intelligence, or protecting the enemy, but also the broader crime of communicating—directly or indirectly—with the enemy without authorization. That’s the prosecution’s theory here: Manning knew that the materials would be made public, and he knew that Al Qaeda or its affiliates could read the publications in which the materials would be published. Therefore, the prosecution argues, by giving the materials to WikiLeaks, Manning was “indirectly” communicating with the enemy. Under this theory, there is no need to show that the defendant wanted or intended to aid the enemy. The prosecution must show only that he communicated the potentially harmful information, knowing that the enemy could read the publications to which he leaked the materials. This would be true whether Al Qaeda searched the WikiLeaks database or the New York Times‘….
This theory is unprecedented in modern American history.
If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, the introduction of a capital offense into the mix would dramatically elevate the threat to whistleblowers. The consequences for the ability of the press to perform its critical watchdog function in the national security arena will be dire. And then there is the principle of the thing. However technically defensible on the language of the statute, and however well-intentioned the individual prosecutors in this case may be, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of this case and ask: Are we the America of Japanese Internment and Joseph McCarthy, or are we the America of Ida Tarbell and the Pentagon Papers? What kind of country makes communicating with the press for publication to the American public a death-eligible offense?
A country that’s much less free and much less secure.
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