by Samantha Lowell
Despite the Obama Administration’s 2008 election pledge to crack down on Bush era warrantless spying and wiretapping in the post-911 era, the NSA’s efforts remain unchecked and . If anything, the agency has expended its efforts, creating a massive warehouse of information and a supercomputer outside of Bluffdale, Utah. Expected to be completed in 2013, it will be more than five times the size of the US Capitol.
The new facility will warehouse the world’s single largest collection of data -much of it as yet unencrypted from suspected terrorists and criminals. The NSA was created after Word War 2 to be an arm of the defense Department, its main purpose to avert another Pearl Harbor by looking for signs of a threat internally.
Since then, however, its record was mixed and it seemed to be destined to fall off the political map, gradually losing importance until September 11, 2012.
In the wake of 9-11, the Bush administration vested the NSA with almost unlimited funding and virtually unchecked power to spy on Americans deemed to be potential risks to national security, bypassing the legal requirement for a warrant. Despite lingering concerns for the constitutionality of such laws, the practice continues unabated today. However, despite apparent breakthroughs in technology, the NSA doesn’t seem to be spying indiscriminately spy on every American. Sources indicate that certain “threshholds” or danger triggers, such as affiliation or nationality or suspect political activities seem to trigger NSA scrutiny; however, when it does deem someone worth scrutiny, the agency’s reach is almost limitless, able to tap into the most sensitive personal and financial information no more legal check than what is described as an automated, expedited warrant process-which seems little more than a legal rubber stamp.
Despite its near seemingly unchecked power to spy on Americans’ most sensitive information-and with theaid of AT&T and Verizon wireless-it has had a decidedly bleak record of success, so much so that some question the continued existence of the agency at all: The NSA was caught off guard by the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of US embassies in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and finally was even blindsided by the 9/11 attacks themselves. The NSA also missed the near-disastrous recent attempted attack by the underwear bomber on a flight to Detroit in 2009 and by the car bomber in Times Square in 2010.
Despite this, the Bluffdale facility remains under construction and the NSA’s funding and activities remain unchecked thus far. But the mammoth Bluffdale center will have a far more important and secretive role besides that of data storage center: It will be the nation’s new forefront in the cyberwars, which focusses on breaking codes. According to a source once connected with the NSA, this is crucial as much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted.
More troubling, according to another official, the NSA made an huge, unspecified breakthrough in its ability to break encryption systems. This could allow the agency to target not only sophisticated codes used to protect government and financial communications, but also codes used by the average citizen to protect his or her email.
Additionally, civil libertarians are applying continued pressure on the President to deliver on his promise to curb the NSA. The FISA Amendments Act — which passed with the support of then-Senator Obama — generally requires the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court to approve terror –based domestic electronic surveillance requests by the NSA or other agencies .
In 2011, a federal appeals court reinstated an ACLU lawsuit seeking to end warrantless wiretapping by the NSA. The case lingers in federal court, pending an expected federal assertion that the lawsuit would expose national security secrets. In February 2012, the Department of Justice asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Civil libertarians and legal scholars watch the case with interest, though many doubt that the suit will survive the Obama administration’s assertion of needed secrecy. In addition to the legal challenge, the NSA must still overcome the hurdle of strong encryption before it can gain untrammeled government access to private digital data.
Additionally, it remains to be seen if the NSA’s planned supercomputer is even up to the task. Monitoring at the speeds and volumes required would require a quantum breakthrough in computer technology. Many legitimately fear that the NSA’s power is a clear and present danger to American democracy, but it also serves to remember the lessons of history. There are clear parallels between the NSA and the Nixon era wiretapping, the unavoidable temptations to abuse power, and the ultimate outcome of those Watergate era abuses.