Besides the NSA, the Pentagon, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and dozens of private contractors are spying on millions of Americans 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Its a total effort to build dossiers on as many Americans as possible, says a former NSA agent who quit in disgust over use of the agency to spy on Americans. Were no longer in the business of tracking our enemies. Were spying on everyday Americans.
It's really obvious to me that it's a look-at-everything type program, says cryptology expert Bruce Schneier.
But the NSA spying is just the tip of the iceberg.
Although supposedly killed by Congress more than 18 months ago, the Defense Advance Project Research Agencys Terrorist Information Awareness (TIA) system, formerly called the Total Information Awareness program, is alive and well and collecting data in real time on Americans at a computer center located at 3801 Fairfax Drive in Arlington, Virginia.
The system, set up by retired admiral John Poindexter, once convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal, compiles financial, travel and other data on the day-to-day activities of Americans and then runs that data through a computer model to look for patterns that the agency deems terrorist-related behavior.
TIA builds a profile of every American who travels, has a bank account, uses credit cards and has a credit record, says security expert Allen Banks. The profile establishes norms based on the persons spending and travel habits. Then the system looks for patterns that break from the norms, such of purchases of materials that are considered likely for terrorist activity, travel to specific areas or a change in spending habits.
Patterns that fit pre-defined criteria result in an investigative alert and the individual becomes a person of interest who is referred to the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, Banks says.
Intelligence pros call the process data mining and that is something the NSA excels at as well says former NSA signals intelligence analyst Russell Tice.
"The technology exists," says Tice, who left the NSA earlier this year.
"Say Aunt Molly in Oklahoma calls her niece at an Army base in Germany and says, 'Isn't it horrible about those terrorists and September 11th,'" Tice told the Atlanta Constitution recently. That conversation would not only be captured by NSA satellites listening in on Germany which is legal but flagged and listened to by NSA analysts and possibly transcribed for further investigation. All you would have to do is move the vacuum cleaner a little to the left and begin sucking up the other end of that conversation. You move it a little more and you could be picking up everything people are saying from California to New York."
Given the military's legacy of privacy abuses, such vague assurances are cold comfort, says Gene Healy, senior editor of the CATO Institute in Washington.
During World War I, concerns about German saboteurs led to unrestrained domestic spying by U.S. Army intelligence operatives, says Healy. Army spies were given free reign to gather information on potential subversives, and were often empowered to make arrests as special police officers. Occasionally, they carried false identification as employees of public utilities to allow them, as the chief intelligence officer for the Western Department put it, to enter offices or residences of suspects gracefully, and thereby obtain data.