Friday, January 27, 2006

More on the NSA Spying

I find myself taking everything I read on the NSA scandal with a grain of salt. As I read these stories, I'm reminded of Daniel Ellsberg's book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers; the key to Ellsberg's book is that he noticed how seductive highly classified information was to the highest officials in the government. What he noticed in particular was how deceptive such information could be in that it led officials to have a view of things that put them in exclusive company, and in a sense, above everybody else, and therefore in a position where they stopped listening to what experts had to say who were not privy to highly classified information. And this inability to listen because of all the inside information led officials to make serious errors. The inside information in many ways was easy to misinterpret and in some cases just as wrong as any analysis at a lower level of classification.

Again, I invoke the usual caveats under the usual assumption that we will probably be seeing some of these things very differently in months, perhaps even years. But Ellsberg's warning seem to apply to sections of two article by Jason Leopold. An excerpt from the first article mentions John Bolton:
The NSA ended up giving its raw data to then Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton on at least 10 different occasions since 9/11. Bolton, nominated by Bush to be US ambassador to the United Nations, let slip during his confirmation hearings in April that he asked the NSA to unmask the identities of the Americans blacked out in the agency's raw reports, to better understand the context of the intelligence.

However, evidence suggests that Bolton used the information for personal reasons, in direct violation of rules governing the dissemination of classified intelligence. During one routine wiretap, the NSA obtained the name of a state department official whose name had been blacked out when the agency submitted its report to various federal agencies.

Bolton's chief of staff, Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA official, revealed during the confirmation hearings that Bolton had requested that the NSA unmask the unidentified official. Fleitz said that when Bolton found out his identity, he congratulated the official, and by doing so he had violated the NSA's rules by discussing classified information contained in the wiretap.

It turned out that Bolton was just one of many government officials who learned the identities of Americans caught in the NSA intercepts. The State Department has asked the NSA to unmask the identities of American citizens 500 times since May 2001.
With the exception of Bolton, I'm not sure who in the State Department would be asking for all these identities. And, of course, there are people in other parts of the Bush Administration who probably would not miss an opportunity to snoop through NSA materials. And apparently there is evidence for such a supposition.

As it turns out, Jason Leopold, in another article, tells us that Cheney in particular is another official who was interested in the NSA materials as related in this excerpt:
Requesting that the NSA reveal the identity of Americans caught in wiretaps is legal as long as it serves the purpose of understanding the context of the intelligence information.

But the sources said that on dozens of occasions Cheney would, upon learning the identity of the individual, instruct the NSA to continue monitoring specific Americans caught in the wiretaps if he thought more information would be revealed, which crossed the line into illegal territory.

Cheney advised President Bush of what had turned up in the raw NSA reports, said one former White House official who worked on counterterrorism related issues.

"What's really disturbing is that some of those people the vice president was curious about were people who worked at the White House or the State Department," one former counterterrorism official said. "There was a real feeling of paranoia that permeated from the vice president's office and I don't think it had anything to do with the threat of terrorism. I can't say what was contained in those taps that piqued his interest. I just don't know."
The question hangs in the air. If the story is accurate, who were the other people the Vice President was interested in? Journalists perhaps? One can only speculate.

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