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Workers Vanguard No. 953

26 February 2010

Phone Worker Exposes Government Spying Network

Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine...And Fighting It

A Review by John Perry

Every time you send an e-mail or a text message, search Google or read a Web page, there is a good chance that National Security Agency (NSA) computers are tracking you, all as part of the government’s “war on terror.” In Utah and Texas, the NSA is building data warehouses as big as small towns to house copies of literally trillions of private citizens’ Internet posts and downloads. According to American intelligence expert James Bamford, whose 1982 book The Puzzle Palace was the first major account of the NSA, “once vacuumed up and stored in these near-infinite ‘libraries,’ the data are then analyzed by powerful infoweapons, supercomputers running complex algorithmic programs, to determine who among us may be—or may one day become—a terrorist” (New York Review of Books, 5 November 2009).

That we know the extent of the government’s massive cybersnooping is largely thanks to retired Bay Area AT&T worker Mark Klein. In 2006, Klein came forward with detailed revelations of how the NSA had tapped into AT&T’s fiber-optic Internet cables to offload a copy of the entire data flow. Klein’s revelations became Exhibit A in a civil liberties lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to expose and stop the illegal government data mining. The upshot was that Congress stepped in to bless the NSA wiretaps in 2007 and 2008, killing the EFF lawsuit with bipartisan support, including from then-Senator Barack Obama.

Last year, Klein published his own account of how he discovered the NSA spying operation. His short book, Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine…And Fighting It, details his courageous efforts to bring the snooping operations to light, and the government’s counterattack to keep the lid on the story and keep the wiretaps running. Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine, which contains a foreword by James Bamford, is a fascinating and chilling read that details the collusion between the NSA and the telecommunications industry in spying on the population.

The NSA’s wholesale downloading of telecom traffic is a graphic example of how the capitalist rulers have used the “war on terror” domestically to target whomever they want as a potential “terrorist.” Abroad, the “war on terror” has been a pretext for imperialist rampage, from the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to the aerial bombardment of Pakistan. In our 2003 amici curiae (friends of the court) brief on behalf of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen seized and detained by the government as an “enemy combatant,” the Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee described the “war on terror”: “Like the ‘war against communism’ and the ‘war against drugs,’ this ‘war’ is a pretext to increase the state’s police powers and repressive apparatus, constricting the democratic rights of the population.”

We have repeatedly warned that the repressive measures enacted in the wake of the September 11 attacks, initially directed at Muslims and immigrants, would lead to an assault on political dissent and the rights of all, particularly those of black people and the labor movement. As Marxists, we expect that the capitalist state, whether administered by Democrats or Republicans, will continue to eavesdrop on what the rulers term “persons of interest”—not least those who oppose the blood-soaked capitalist order and its brutal repression. Illegal or not, spying, harassment and repression are the norm for the capitalist state, which exists to defend capitalist rule and profits. As we wrote in “NSA/FBI Spying and the War on Our Rights” (WV No. 861, 6 January 2006): “Short of the overthrow of capitalist rule, none of the rights and gains that working people hold dear are secure. What’s needed is a thoroughgoing socialist revolution led by a multiracial workers party to establish the rule of the working class and usher in a society based on production for human needs not profit.”

Secret Room 641A

At the time of the September 11 attacks, Klein worked in downtown San Francisco as an AT&T technician. He was a Communications Workers of America (CWA) unionist with over 20 years experience who had walked the picket lines during phone strikes in 1983 and 1986. One day in 2002, Klein and his co-workers got a company e-mail saying that an NSA agent would be coming to their workplace. Klein, who had been a Vietnam antiwar activist in the late 1960s and knew of the NSA’s history of illegal spying, grew suspicious when he heard that the NSA was training a management-level technician for a “special job.” Several months later, in January 2003, Klein was taken on a tour of AT&T’s downtown hub on Folsom Street. There he saw that there was a secret room being built on the sixth floor, labeled 641A, which was to house special equipment of some kind. During a company downsizing, Klein was transferred to work in the seventh floor Internet room directly above the secret NSA chamber.

Reading like a Len Deighton spy novel, Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine details how Klein pieced together one clue after another until he cracked what Big Brother was up to in Room 641A. A light bulb went on after a retiring co-worker gave Klein some technical documents showing that a splitter cabinet in the seventh floor Internet room was connected to panels in the secret room below.

It was obvious to Klein that the splitter—a special glass prism—was being used to split the light beams in the fiber-optic cables into two signals—one signal carrying the message to its normal destination, the other carrying a copy to the NSA computers a floor below. Klein writes: “The important fact is that each separate signal contains all the information, nothing is lost, so in effect the entire data stream has been copied…. What screams out at you when examining this physical arrangement is that the NSA was vacuuming up everything flowing in the Internet stream: e-mail, web browsing, Voice-Over-Internet phone calls, pictures, streaming video, you name it.” Klein learned from a co-worker that similar splitter cabinets were being used in other cities, including Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The next big piece in the puzzle came when Klein found out that the NSA’s secret room included a piece of equipment called a Narus STA 6400. “I looked it up, and it turned out this was a very sophisticated and specialized product that not only was perfectly suited for sorting through the data stream in real time looking for things, but it was already being marketed specifically to telecommunications and other companies for intelligence and police spying.” Klein quickly realized the hair-raising implications of the splitter/Narus setup:

“The Narus enables them to look at the content of every data packet going by, not just the addressing information. It is the dream machine for a police state, one that even George Orwell could not imagine. Not only does it enable the government to see what millions of people are saying and doing every day, but it can build up a database which reveals the connections among social groups—who’s calling and e-mailing whom.”

Big Brother’s Cover-Up Machine

It was a relief for Klein when he got the chance to take a retirement package at the end of 2004. “I realized I was wiring up the Big Brother Machine, and I was not happy about it—I had not signed up to be a spy for the NSA, but to maintain the public telecommunications system. But what could I do? It was apparent that the orders for this came from very high up.” Fearful of a government backlash, Klein bided his time after retirement, waiting for “some change in the political winds that would enable me to come forward.”

The chance opened up in December 2005 when the New York Times broke the story that for three years President George W. Bush had authorized eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails of “hundreds, perhaps thousands of people inside the United States without warrants.” Klein pulled together the information he had on Room 641A, including a summary memo he had written back in 2004, and offered it to a number of journalists and civil liberties organizations. The most receptive response came from EFF lawyers, who were already pulling together a lawsuit against AT&T based on the Times’s revelations. The EFF showed Klein’s documents to an Internet expert, J. Scott Marcus, who confirmed that the NSA technology was designed to sweep up a massive amount of data and had probably been deployed in 15 or 20 locations, likely diverting “well over half” of AT&T’s total domestic wire traffic.

Klein knew it was critical to have his information publicized in order to provide some protection against government and company blowback. As soon as his sworn statement was filed in the EFF suit, AT&T lawyers went to court seeking to gag Klein and force him to return all his evidence on the ground that what he knew constituted “trade secrets” and “state secrets.” Vaughn Walker, the conservative judge hearing the EFF case, rejected AT&T’s claims, ruling that there were no “secrets” because the cat was already out of the bag—the fact that AT&T had turned over its lines to the NSA was already being widely publicized.

Klein tried without luck to find someone on the intelligence committees in Congress who would investigate the NSA’s domestic spying. An attorney for Senator Dianne Feinstein promised to call Klein back, but never did and would not return Klein’s calls. In the end, no one in Congress called on Klein to testify about what he knew. Klein also pushed to get his story into the bourgeois media, but the government leaned hard on the press to keep quiet. The New York Times, which had sat on the original wiretapping story for over a year, dithered for months before finally running Klein’s revelations in April 2006. The Los Angeles Times quashed a story based on Klein’s revelations after discussions with both the White House and Senator Feinstein’s staff! As Klein remarks, “The two of them apparently had no problems discussing my evidence with each other in private, but deliberately kept it from the public’s view.” To its credit, published Klein’s material on its Web site, and later Klein would be featured on liberal radio and TV shows including Frontline, Countdown and Democracy Now!

NSA: “No Such Agency”

The NSA is by far the largest and at the same time the most secretive of U.S. spy agencies, three times the size of the CIA. It was founded in 1952 by secret order of Democratic president Harry Truman, mainly to spy on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, the NSA went through a massive expansion as the government targeted radicals, Vietnam antiwar activists and black militants based on “watch lists” of citizens given to the NSA by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. After the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s and under the impact of the social struggles of that period, some of this sordid history was publicly exposed through the investigation and hearings of the Senate’s 1975-76 Church Committee.

The spying continued, but with some new window-dressing to add an appearance of legality. In 1978, the Carter administration signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a special secret court to vet requests for “national security” wiretaps. While FISA is often invoked by liberals as a check on the nation’s secret police, it has in fact never been anything more than a rubber stamp. In its first 27 years, it denied only five of nearly 20,000 wiretap applications!

America’s rulers long viewed the telephone companies as a key military “asset.” Klein recounts how the high-rise AT&T building on Thomas Street in Manhattan, which was built in 1974, “was reputedly designed for nuclear war and evoked a gloomy Kafkaesque world: There were no windows, as the outside was clad in giant pink granite slabs, while the internal structure had tons of reinforced concrete and, said the rumors, special shielding against the electromagnetic pulse from high-altitude nuclear detonations that could fry unprotected electronics and electrical equipment.” As far back as 1919, Western Union handed over to a secret government spy outfit called the Black Chamber all international cables sent by foreign embassies in Washington.

The NSA was already pressuring the telephone companies to open up their lines in early 2001, before the September 11 attacks. Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio has disclosed that in February 2001 Qwest lost its bid for a fat government contract after he refused the NSA’s demands for access to Qwest’s customer calling records and to install monitoring equipment on the phone lines.

By the time that Room 641A was being built, the Bush administration was launching the notorious Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, run by convicted Contragate criminal John Poindexter. As Poindexter put it, the TIA would give the government “instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant” (New York Times, 9 November 2002). TIA prompted a public outcry, and Congress made a show of cutting off funding for it, but TIA’s methods simply migrated to the NSA and other agencies. One NSA program, “Novel Intelligence from Massive Data” (NIMD), is based on software called the Glass Box, which tracks and mimics the techniques of human NSA analysts. In his 2008 book, The Shadow Factory, James Bamford explained that NIMD aims to allow computers to crunch the data in all of our computer records in order to “create a society where everyone’s words and actions would be screened by secret surveillance machines programmed to watch-list anyone who matches a complex algorithm created by a secret agency.”

The NSA’s data feeds into the government’s digital “clearinghouse” of potential “terrorists,” called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), which has grown to over half a million names. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the Christmas 2009 “underwear bomber” incident, President Obama has fretted that the government’s spy agencies are still not doing enough “to connect the dots” and demanded that the “no fly” list be expanded even further.

Down With the “War on Terror”!

Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine vividly illustrates the role of the Democratic Party in endorsing the NSA’s warrantless data sweeps. In 2007 and 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Harry Reid were instrumental in getting Congress to pass legislation in support of Bush’s executive orders authorizing the NSA wiretaps and also giving the phone companies immunity from lawsuits for their part in the surveillance.

In November 2007, Klein went to Washington with the EFF to help lobby against these laws, and again was given the cold shoulder by the Congressional Democratic leadership. The notable exception was Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who made a point of reading Klein’s evidence into the Congressional Record from the Senate floor as part of an unsuccessful filibuster to stop the wiretap legislation.

Whatever objections Congressional Democrats raised when the extent of the domestic spying program became clear during the last years of the Bush administration, they were mainly over the unfocused character of the NSA spying operations. Such objections had the character of the corrupt police chief in the movie Casablanca who suddenly announces he is “shocked” to find gambling going on in Rick’s café. Far from having been a plot by the Bush gang, government spying on the population—be it by the NSA, FBI, CIA or other such agencies, past and present—has been carried out by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

Contrary to the claims of reformist “socialists” and liberals that Barack Obama would represent some kind of “change” from the Bush regime, Obama made clear in his presidential campaign that he supported the shredding of civil liberties. After his swearing in as imperialist Commander-in-Chief in January 2009, his Justice Department asked Judge Walker to dismiss the EFF suit against AT&T on the ground that AT&T was only doing what the government asked it to do. “In effect,” as Klein notes, “Congress had endorsed the infamous Nuremberg defense at the postwar trials of Nazi war criminals who said that they were ‘just following orders’.”

While the Bush administration was brazen and open about its attacks on the Bill of Rights, the Democrats prefer that domestic spying be done behind closed doors, like the FBI’s “black bag” break-ins during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. In fact, it was during the administration of Democrat Bill Clinton that the ground was laid for Bush’s attacks on civil liberties. In the 1990s, the NSA had already begun scanning international e-mails without warrants through its Echelon program. In response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal office building, Clinton launched an assault on immigrant rights, including secret trials, while virtually eliminating the right of habeas corpus appeals for death row inmates.

Just as the Democrats were up to their necks in the Bush administration’s program of open torture—with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi getting a 2002 “virtual tour” of CIA detention sites that included descriptions of waterboarding and other torture techniques—they have also been neck deep in the government’s internal spying programs. The Democrats have always been staunch supporters of the “war on terror,” voting for the USA Patriot Act and other attacks on democratic rights. Indeed, both capitalist parties aim to cow the population into accepting blatant attacks on their rights as necessary for “national security.” The difference between the Democrats and Republicans is not what they do, but how they do it. With their posture as friends of labor and minorities, the Democrats have generally been the bourgeoisie’s preferred party of war, better equipped than the Republicans to sell U.S. imperialism’s atrocities as exercises in “human rights” and “democracy.”

An important pillar of support to the government’s shredding of democratic rights has been the defense of the reactionary “war on terror” by the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, including the CWA’s leadership. In his book, Klein notes how the CWA “originated in the 1930s as a literal company union which evolved into one that was forced to actually lead strikes for better pay, benefits, and just plain respect from the arrogant management.” Part of the CWA bureaucracy’s sordid history included playing an important role in U.S. imperialism’s Cold War drive against the Soviet Union. For example, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)—which worked with the CIA to destroy militant, left-led unions, especially in Latin America—was the brainchild of Joe Beirne, the CWA’s longtime president.

Whether carried out by Democrats or Republicans, the extensive attacks on the population’s civil liberties serve to strengthen the apparatus of the capitalist state, which at its core is a machinery of repression and violence against those the bourgeois rulers exploit and oppress. Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine…And Fighting It is an important contribution in exposing the government’s spying apparatus, which the working class has every interest in opposing. As we wrote in “Government Wiretapping: Big Brother Is Listening” (WV No. 909, 29 February 2008):

“What the government is able to get away with will ultimately be determined by the level of social struggle. What is necessary is a fight to forge a new, class-struggle leadership in the labor movement. This must be linked to the fight to build a revolutionary, multiracial workers party that acts as the tribune of the people and stands for the political independence of the working class against the capitalist state and its parties—an internationalist beacon, capable of mobilizing the social power of the proletariat on behalf of all the oppressed. In the course of such political struggle, we seek to win the working class to the understanding that only a fight to smash the capitalist state through socialist revolution and to establish workers rule can emancipate labor and rid the planet of the horrors of U.S. imperialism.”


Workers Vanguard No. 953

WV 953

26 February 2010


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Phone Worker Exposes Government Spying Network

Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine...And Fighting It

A Review by John Perry


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