James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, discusses the huge advances in NSA technology and invasiveness since the Church Committee‘s 1975-76 investigation of illegal intelligence gathering, the NSA’s ominously-titled “Perfect Citizen” cyber assault monitoring program, technology and free speech activists who fight internet censorship and how the major telecom hubs provide the NSA with enough information to fill enormous data centers.
MP3 here. (28:24) Transcript below.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews James Bamford July 29, 2010
Scott Horton: All right everybody, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m reading the closed captioning on the MSNBC over my shoulder here. They’re explaining how war crimes can’t be war crimes when Americans commit them – everybody knows that. All right, anyway, our next guest on the show is the great James Bamford. He’s the author of course of The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets and The Shadow Factory about the National Security Agency, and of course A Pretext for War. And you can also – I highly recommend you go online and watch his Nova special about the National Security Agency. It’ll knock your socks off. And also you should read him in Rolling Stone magazine where he’s got a couple of really good ones, including “The Man Who Sold The War” all about [John] Rendon and the PR group that worked with Chalabi and the Neocons and the CIA to lie you into Iraq. The great James Bamford – welcome to the show! How are you doing, Jim?
James Bamford: Well, thanks, I appreciate it. I don’t know if I deserve the comment, “great,” but I appreciate you having me on your show.
Horton: And you hear that, he’s modest too, ladies and gentlemen – check it out. Alright, so Jim, let’s begin this interview with you where you end your book: “More than three decades ago, when the NSA posed a fraction of the privacy threat that it poses today with the Internet, digital communications and mass-storage, Senator Frank Church, the first chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, investigated the NSA and issued a stark warning:
‘That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. Such is the capability to monitor everything – telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government – no matter how privately it was done – is within the reach of government to know. Such is the capability of this technology. ‘”
And then you write, “There is now the capacity to make total tyranny in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss – the abyss from which there is no return.” And now I wonder about, you know, how far down we’ve fallen into that thing, because I haven’t heard of a law being around in a long, long time now.
Bamford: Well, the interesting thing was Senator Frank Church – who was the very first person ever to really explore NSA, look into NSA and find out what the agency really does, that was back in the mid-70s – said that when the NSA’s capability was simply to eavesdrop on landline phones and really didn’t have too much capability to do domestic telephone interception back in those days. When you compare that to today, when the NSA has the ability not only to eavesdrop on telephone calls everywhere, it has the ability to eavesdrop on e-mail and every kind of electronic transmission. So at one point, the NSA could eavesdrop on basically a handful of domestic communications, and today it could basically get into your mind. You know, if you get a week’s worth of a person’s entries into Google and so forth, you can get a pretty good idea of what goes through that person’s mind every day. And so that’s really the danger, and that was not even forseen by Frank Church when he made those comments.
Horton: You know, I think you were one of the sources for this article. . . Christopher Ketcham in Counterpunch [it was Radar Magaizine -ed.] – all about “Main Core,” the database, the table of contents, I think he called it, that they put under the Department of Homeland Security because the CIA and the FBI already had some guidelines kind of preventing them from doing something like this outright, but under the DHS it’s all new, and so they put this together and I think basically, what he says in there is it amounts to sort of the insta-FBI file. You know like, people used to talk about this guy or that guy had an FBI file. Well, this is the thing where if they just push “Enter,” the computer will automatically assemble the entire file for them right there, on the spot, from all the disparate sources of information – all the disparate government databases and private ones too. And so, you know, you just type in “Suzie Q,” and it just pulls up every single thing about “Suzie Q” that Big Brother has on file.
Bamford: Well, I’ve never heard of “Main Core,” so I’m not familiar with that operation, and it’s just something that, you know, a few people have written about, but I haven’t really come across it in my research. But what you’re basically describing isn’t really any more sophisticated than simply a Google search. I mean if you just apply Google-style search engines to an enormous database of communications, you’re basically doing the same thing. You’re able to go in there and zero in on every communication, e-mail or phone call that a person might make if he just interchanged the effort and hit the button and all those communications would come together just like it would on Google, and that’s really the danger now, is the fact that the NSA is acquiring so much information.
I mean one example of that is the article I wrote for the New York Review of Books a few months ago – I think it was in November I wrote it. And what I talked about in that article was this new data storage facility – very, very secret data storage facility that the NSA is building in Utah – out in the desert in Utah – and it’s going to be one million square feet and cost about two billion dollars. Now, you know if you consider how much information can go on a little flash drive – three, four, five gigabytes worth of data, which is an enormous amount of data – think how much can go into a building that’s a million square feet. That’s the size of the capitol plus one third additional. And that was after the NSA just built another enormous data center down in San Antonio, Texas that’s almost the size of the Astrodome.
So, you know, they’re building these enormous, very secret databases. The question is, “What’s going into the databases and what happens to the information that does go in there.” The big problem we have is lack of transparency. The NSA seems to have a right to be able to do anything it wants to in secret – which is fine as long as they were obeying the law and doing all their eavesdropping overseas. But now that they are doing all this domestic eavesdropping, plus building these enormous data–centers within the United States. There’s an obvious need for more transparency in what’s happening – what’s going in there, what’s coming out of it, what are they doing with the information inside and how much of that is US vs. foreign?
Horton: Well, according to your research, how much of an overstatement would it be to just say, “Well they’re getting everything.” They’re vacuuming up the whole Internet every day, right, every bank transaction, every e-mail, every Google search. Not necessarily that they have access to examine all of it, I guess that’s a different question, but aren’t they just basically getting everything?
Bamford: Well, it all has to be speculation. I’m always the outsider looking in. I’m not on the inside looking out.
Horton: Right, but you’re the closest to the inside that we’ve got, Jim.
Bamford: Right, exactly, so I can tell you that they’re building a big data facility. I can tell you how much it costs and how big it is, and what their potential is. I can’t tell you what is going through those routers in there, or what’s going into the Cray supercomputers or whatever. I mean, I wish I had that crystal ball, I can’t.
But that’s what I’m saying is that in a perfect world, the NSA would be called before some committee in congress in open session and say, “OK, we’re giving you two billion dollars to build this facility. Now tell us – you don’t have to tell us everything that’s in there – just tell us how much of what’s going in there is domestic vs foreign? What’s being done with it in there? How much data–mining is being done? What happens with the private information that comes out? Is it e-mail? Is it telephones? What is it? I mean, those are the kind of things that should be told to the American people. It’s their communications that are being worked on.
Horton: All right everybody, we’re talking with Jim Bamford. He’s the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. We’ll be right back to talk a little about the structure of the national security state when we get back. Right after this. In a sec.
––– break –––
Horton: All right y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott, I’m talking with the great James Bamford. You’ve got to read this book, The Shadow Factory. I read it and then I listened to the thing on audiobook, and then I loaned them both out, and, thank my lucky stars, I actually got the book back, which is pretty good! Fifty percent, I’ll take it. You’ve got to read this book, The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America by James Bamford.
Bamford: Scott, just one comment. The book I wrote, The Shadow Factory, we did as a TV documentary also on PBS Nova which was called The Spy Factory and last week it just got nominated for an Emmy Award, which I was very happy about, for Outstanding Investigative Journalism.
Horton: Hey, congratulations.
Bamford: Thanks, but that – anybody that watches the video will see some of the ideas that I talked about a little earlier transformed into visual objects in the documentary.
Horton: Well, and it also shows how this book was written, “I’m standing here in Yemen at Hani Hanjour’s father-in-law’s house, where the al Qaeda switchboard was” or “I’m standing here in Malaysia where the guys met before getting onto the plane to Bangkok” and yeah, now I know why this book is so good. There it is.
Bamford: Thanks, I appreciate it.
Horton: Man, I’m telling you, this is what journalism is supposed to be. This is what all those other journalists don’t measure up to, is what’s in this book. Yeah, ok so enough of that, let me ask you about this Perfect Citizen Program real quick. Do you know about that?
Bamford: Well, the Wall Street Journal had an article about that a few weeks ago. Yeah, again, I just wonder who at NSA comes up with these titles. “Perfect Citizen” sounds like something out of Big Brother, George Orwell or something. But what it basically is, is this idea that NSA has of putting sensors into the sort of data and electronic infrastructure within the United States. Their idea is that by putting sensors into the electronic grid and the nuclear power plants and things like that, they’ll be able to see if some outside force – whether it’s a terrorist group or a foreign country – is trying to probe those areas or plant viruses or conduct electronic or cyber warfare. That’s the idea behind [Perfect] Citizen is the NSA’s ability to penetrate the US electric grid and pretty much its entire infrastructure – electronic infrastructure – in order to put sensors in there that will give them an idea if there’s some penetration by some outside force. That’s the positive thing, if that works.
The negative thing is that, as I mentioned before, since there’s a lack of transparency in NSA, you don’t know what else is being done with all that. They plan all these sensors everywhere – I mean we already know they have sensors within the telecommunications structure to get e-mails and cell phone calls and all that kind of electronic communications. The question is what happens when they start putting these sensors all through everybody’s infrastructure for electronics. Where does that affect the average citizen? And those answers are classified. You can’t find out what’s going to happen or what exactly they’re going to do, and that’s the problem. The problem is always not knowing, and always being given some very bland cover story for what’s really going on, you know?
Horton: You know what I wonder? When you kind of look at the long term, do you get the feeling that the Internet is going to stay free and be basically what it’s, you know, more or less been – this Web 1 and Web 2. 0 and whatever we have here? Are we going to end up with just, you know, the whole world is going to have like a Chinese Internet where ultimately the American Politburo is watching everything we do and decide what it is we’re allowed to do and say, whether we can have an Antiwar.com or not.
Bamford: Well, there is that danger, and there is a movement, a fairly large movement, to make it that way, because you see the China situation where they’re trying to control exactly what goes on the Internet and what comes off it. But there’s also moves within the United States by a number of groups that are interested in censorship for the purpose of their own philosophical ideas or whatever. They don’t want anybody else’s ideas to get on the Internet.
So there are these movements all over the world, not only in China, but also in the United States to put restrictions on the Internet and – you know on the surface, some of them sound fairly benign – but once you start looking into it and once you start expanding it, giving this group permission to take something off the Internet, then giving another group, pretty soon you don’t have an Internet anymore, you just have the same thing you have in mainstream media, which is a lot of censorship.
Horton: Yeah, well, you know, it’s no mystery why the establishment and the corporate media are threatened by the Internet. They denounce it all the time for being “Not good journalism” like they do, or whatever, which, you know, you had to quit ABC News to continue doing real journalism in your career; you serve as a pretty good example there.
Bamford: Well, I left because of Monica Lewinsky. I didn’t want to spend a year chasing Monica around Washington. I thought writing Body of Secrets would be a lot more interesting.
Horton: Exactly my point. Yeah of course. And it was, to people who are interested in interesting things. But it’s not just, you know, pressure groups, it’s the executive state, I mean they keep talking about all this cyber warfare, and Joe Lieberman has a bill where he wants to be able to I guess send in guard troops to seize all the routers and shut down the Internet in case of a war, or in case of profound criticism of Israel or something like that.
Bamford: Well, the other problem is that the technology does exist for, sort of, ultimate censorship, this “deep packet inspection” is what it’s called, so that everything that crosses the Internet can go through these devices that provide “deep packet inspection.” So if you’re saying something – if there’s a word or a phrase, if there’s communications from a certain web address that the government doesn’t want – it’s possible to, what they call “mitigate” it, which means exclude it. So that technology is there, and to a large degree, it’s set up in a lot of these countries. A lot of these devices are actually made in the United States and then exported – the software, hardware – exported to these countries where they use them for censorship in Vietnam and China and other places. So that’s the problem, you’ve got the technology there to allow the censoring of the Internet and probably just have to be very conscious not to let that happen.
Horton: Now is there any chance I could keep you one more segment here, Jim?
Bamford: Sure, yeah, that’s fine.
Horton: Ok, wonderful. Everybody, it’s Jim Bamford, the book is The Shadow Factory, and we’ll be right back.
––– break –––
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m talking with James Bamford. He’s the author of The Shadow Factory, and I appreciate you reminding me, Jim, the name of the Nova special – now the Emmy-nominated Nova special – is The Spy Factory which everyone can find at PBS.org. Of course, Nova is the great science show there, and this is the science of Big Brother vacuuming up your entire life and keeping the closest tabs on you. So now in this segment Jim, if we could, I’d like to focus first of all on some of the software, and kind of the history of how – maybe even you know some of the scandal – about the NSA trying to work out which programs to use and where they get them from – the programs that they use to sift all this data to try to, I think as you quote somebody saying in the book, “They’re trying to surf on the ocean of information rather than drown in it. “So I wonder how this software works. If you can help us understand a little bit about that, and then maybe we can wrap up with a bit of the structure of the national security state and the public-private partnerships – as they like to call them – that make it all happen.
Bamford: Sure. The way it works, basically, is in terms of telecommunications – most communications these days – in terms of international communications – enter and leave the United States via undersea cable and they come in to about six or so places, six or eight places on the east coast and six or eight places on the west coast, called “cable heads,” where the cables actually come ashore. And once they come ashore they go to various telecommunications switches which are usually large buildings like ten-story buildings that have no windows, and that’s where the NSA begins its first interception of communications.
For example, when the communications come across the Pacific Ocean and then enter the United States, they go to this enormous building in downtown San Francisco. And because of a whistleblower who was very courageous in terms of giving information about what he saw going on inside that building – which was AT&T’s switch for that part of the country – he said he saw the building of this very secret room within the AT&T switch. It was a room that virtually nobody had access to, and was locked all the time, and I think there was just one person that was allowed in and out of it.
So what happens is that the communications come into the building on these cables or fiber-optic cables, which means that the communications are transmitted by photons – little bits of light – and they go into this machine. The cable actually goes into this machine called a splitter, and what it does – it’s basically a prism – and it divides the light. It actually duplicates the light, so if you have one photon coming in, after it hits the splitter there’s two photons, there’s the original photon and an identical photon.
So what you have is the communications come in, they hit the splitter, one section goes off to where it should go, you know, an e-mail to Kansas City or something. And the other side, the duplicate side, then goes down one floor into this secret room, and inside the secret room are a lot of computers–hardware and software designed to target communications. You know if you say the wrong word or if you have an address, e-mail address, on that watch list in there, or you’re communicating to an e-mail that’s on the watch list, all these things are programmed in there. They’re programmed into the software and then the hardware filters it all through these software filters and then when it picks up the software that’s targeted, or picks up the communications that are targeted, such as an e-mail to Jim Bamford or whatever, then it sends it off to NSA to be further analyzed.
So that’s pretty much how it works, it’s all done electronically and very quickly, and with software that’s designed to penetrate deep within the communications to pick out the target information it wants, and then analyzes it. And again all of this was never even dreamed of when Frank Church made that comment that you mentioned at the beginning of the show.
Horton: Yeah, well and as you talk about, it’s actually your comment at the very end there: It’s only the old law left over from when Patrick Henry and his militia were just as armed as the central state that that legacy of the law that, you know, attempts to put the State on some sort of equal footing with the regular people. Without that, we’re completely done for. It seems like right now, the law’s been abandoned to the degree that they have all the information about us that they never had access to before, but they can’t quite implement it yet. But then again I guess we saw in the Bush years, that these memos said that George Bush could use the army in America, he could override the First Amendment, he could override the Fourth Amendment, he could override Posse Comitatus, he could do whatever he wanted because the whole world’s a battlefield, and we really are getting to the point where if they get sick and tired of Jim Bamford, they can just shut up Jim Bamford, huh?
Bamford: Well, they can try anyway. I think I would find some way to evade their net or whatever. But that’s the problem. When I originally wrote that the idea was that the government would follow the law. And as we saw during the Bush years, you know, you got one terrorist incident and all of a sudden laws don’t apply anymore. And all these safeguards were put into effect in 1978 following Watergate and Nixon’s abuse of NSA and FBI and so forth, and that’s why they created the FISA court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. But you know, you get one incident and all of a sudden all rules are over and the Bush Administration decided to bypass that safeguard, the FISA court, and conduct warrantless eavesdropping which – at least as of the latest court decision which was a court decision in California – ruled that it was totally illegal. It was illegal because it violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Horton: And then they just amended the FISA Act to say that the FISA court could now just give blanket warrants to entire categories of information and continue on doing the exact same thing again.
Bamford: Well, that was the problem with the FISA Amendments Act. Exactly. Pretty much give the imprimatur of legality to what had already been going on. Again, a large part of the problem is that much of that law was debated in secret, so you don’t know what exactly it is that the FISA court is doing. They certainly downgraded the FISA court and sort of emasculated it, so we’re pretty much in a situation where we were before, except now it has the imprimatur of law.
Horton: Yeah, never mind the Fourth Amendment; it’s as dead as the Eighth and the Fifth. All right well, so we don’t have very much time here, but I guess if you could give us a little bit of insight into the kindof military-industrial-technical-spying complex here, of course, the subject of the big Priest/Arkin series at the [Washington] Post last week, but it really is kind of where the military-industrial complex is – they haven’t just taken over the policy but they’ve kind of taken over the operation of the whole dang thing, huh? That’s part of the lawlessness too, isn’t it? And there’s the bumper music already playing…
Bamford: Well, yeah, in a sense, that’s right. The problem is the contractors don’t have accountability, and that’s where a lot of the authority is going.
Horton: Yeah, all right, everybody please read this book, The Shadow Factory. Go watch The Spy Factory at PBS.org. Thanks, Jim.
Bamford: Thanks, Scott, I appreciate it.