Timeline: PRISM, Total Information Awareness, and other moments in electronic eavesdropping after 9/11.
Dave Gilson, Alex Park, and AJ VicensJun. 7, 2013 6:56 AM
Recent reports have detailed how the National Security Agency (NSA) has been vacuuming up millions of Americans' phone data, online communications and files, and credit card transaction details. How did we get here?
September 11: Nearly 3,000 people are killed when terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crash another in Pennsylvania. Soon afterward, the NSA begins a "special collection program" to track the communications of Al Qaeda leaders and suspected terrorists.
George W. Bush speaks at the NSA in 2002. NSA
October 4: President George W. Bush secretly authorizes the NSA to track suspected terrorists by monitoring domestic communications without a warrant. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prohibits the government from eavesdropping inside the United States without first getting a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court.
October 26: Bush signs the Patriot Act. The law expands the government's electronic surveillance powers. "The existing law was written in the era of rotary telephones. This new law that I sign today will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including emails, the internet, and cellphones," Bush declares.
TIA logo WikiMedia Commons
February 13: The New York Times reports that the Information Awareness Office, a new Pentagon agency headed by retired vice admiral and Iran-Contra figure John Poindexter, "is developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information-analysis systems."
November 9: Poindexter's Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, "a vast electronic dragnet" that could sweep up electronic and voice communications as well as financial data, is revealed in the Times.
September 25: Congress shuts down the Information Awareness Office over fears that TIA could violate Americans' privacy.
March 10: Deputy Attorney General James Comey prevents White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card from trying to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized, to reauthorize the NSA warrantless wiretapping program. The progam is modified in 2004 due to objections from the Justice Department and a FISA judge.
May 11: USA Today reports that the NSA has been tracking tens of millions of Americans' phone calls using data provided by AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth.
May 25: Former AT&T technician Mark Klein says that in 2002 the company let the NSA install a device in one of its San Francisco facilities that allowed the government to monitor internet and phone traffic.
June 21:Salon reports that other former AT&T workers say the company's internet traffic routed through St. Louis may be tapped by a government agency, likely the NSA.
August 1: Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) says the Bush administration "puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom."
September 11: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from Microsoft, according to official documents recently published by the Guardian. The program's existence is not revealed until June 2013.
March 12: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from Yahoo, according to official documents.
July 10: Bush signs the FISA Amendments Act, which gives the federal government the power to compel telecoms to provide access to emails, phone calls, and text messages if one party is "reasonably believed" to be overseas. The law also gives legal immunity to the phone companies that had participated in the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Sen. Obama opposes extending immunity to the phone companies, but votes for what he calls "an improved but imperfect bill."
August: In a secret decision, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review rules that telecoms must cooperate with federal requests to monitor the international communications of Americans suspected of being terrorists.
NSA headquarters NSA
January 4: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from Google, according to official documents.
April 15: Intelligence officials tell the New York Times about the "overcollection" of domestic communication by the NSA despite the new limits set in 2008.
June 3: A federal judge affirms the constitutionality of retroactive immunity for the companies that participated in the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program. (An appeals court upholds the ruling in December 2011.) On the same day, the NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from Facebook, according to official documents.
December 7: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from PalTalk, according to official documents.
March 10: A federal judge rules that the NSA warrantless wiretapping program started during the Bush administration is illegal.
April 15: Federal authorities charge Thomas Drake, an NSA employee passed information about the agency's activities to reporters, under the Espionage Act. He accepts a plea deal on a lesser charge in 2011.
September 24: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from YouTube, according to official documents.
January: NSA begins construction of a massive, 1 million square foot, $2 billion data center in Utah. "Just as we defend our lands, America also needs to also defend our cyberspace," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says at the groundbreaking ceremony. It is scheduled to be completed in September 2013.
February 6: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from Skype, according to official documents.
March 31: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from AOL, according to official documents.
May 26: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) say that the Department of Justice has been misapplying the Patriot Act to allow expanded domestic surveillance. "When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry," says Wyden.
June 15: The inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence says it "would itself violate the privacy of US persons" to reveal how many people the NSA had tracked inside the country.
July 20: In a letter to Wyden, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concedes that some of the surveillance conducted under the 2008 FISA amendment has "sometimes circumvented the spirit of the law" and that one occasion a FISA judge found such "collection" to violate the Fourth Amendment.
October: The NSA's PRISM program begins getting data from Apple, according to official documents.
December 30: Obama signs a five-year extension of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Amendments to provide more oversight of untargeted mass wiretapping are defeated in the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) says the surveillance of foreigners' communications in the United States "produced and continues to produce significant information that is vital to defend the nation against international terrorism and other threats."
PRISM documents NSA/The Guardian
March 12: During an intelligence committee hearing, Sen. Wyden asks Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper's reply: "No sir."
June 5: The Guardian reports that the NSA has been collecting millions of Verizon customers' call data. The FISA court approved the surveillance in April.
June 6: The Washington Post and the Guardian reveal the existence of PRISM, a top-secret NSA program that has access to emails, documents, audio, video, photographs, and connection logs from nine internet firms. The program, started in 2007, mines user data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. The Wall Street Journal reports that the NSA also has been accessing AT&T and Sprint Nextel customer data as well as credit card transaction data.
June 7: "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about," Obama says at a speech in Silicon Valley. "But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism." He adds, ""You can't have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."
Worse than Watergate. That's the refrain coming from the Obama administration's critics as it scrambles to tamp down a growing pile of scandals. "The Obama administration's cover-up of the September 11, 2012, Benghazi terrorist attack surpasses Watergate," states Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). The IRS-tea party scandal "is far worse than Watergate," according to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). And Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Paul Babeu maintains that Fast and Furious "is a much larger scandal than Watergate." And of course there is a hashtag: #WorseThanWatergate.
Comparing the scandal du jour to Watergate is an easy way to score political points. (Conservatives aren't the only guilty ones here.) But if you're interested in making a more subtle and perhaps accurate comparison, you need only refer to the United States' long history of White House scandals, starting in the first days of the republic.
To help you keep track of them, we've plotted more than 25 on this matrix, organized by their relative seriousness and their place in our current collective memory. (The current crop of Obama scandals aren't on there since it's not yet clear where they fall on the continuum between, say, Billygate and Iran-Contra. See a missing scandal? Suggest it in the comments.)
Watergate: The mother of all White House scandals. It had everything but sex: A burglary, spying on political opponents, secret tapes, an enemies list, obstruction of justice, campaign finance shenanigans, ominous-sounding acronyms (CREEP), memorable denials ("I am not a crook"), congressional investigations, crusading journalists, articles of impeachment, and the first resignation of a sitting president. Beat that, Benghazi.
Spiro Agnew: Before Richard Nixon stepped down, he was preceded by his alliteration-prone vice president, who had been charged with taking bribes and evading taxes. Agnew insisted until the very end that the "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history" had gotten it all wrong.
Iran-Contra: High-ranking officials in the Reagan Administration made an end-run around federal law by secretly selling missiles to Iran in order to help free American hostages in Lebanon and fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels. What could go wrong?
Missing Iraqi WMD: President George W. Bush and top members of his cabinet insist that Saddam Hussein is definitely almost nearly developing and or amassing weapons of mass destruction which he might probably absolutely use against us. The United States launches a preemptive invasion of Iraq. Ten years, tens of thousands of deaths, and billions of dollars later, the search for the elusive WMD continues.
Plamegate: After former ambassador Joe Wilson blew the whistle on the Bush White House's claims of Saddam's pursuit of nuclear materials, his wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA agent. The subsequent investigation leads to the conviction (and pardon) of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby.
Abu Ghraib, torture memos: Prisoner abuse at American military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan and the CIA's extradition and torture program were authorized by Bush and top administration officials. But that's all behind us now.
NSA spying on US citizens: After 9/11, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to covertly surveil Americans' email and phone calls—in violation of federal law.
Pentagon Papers: A secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg revealed that the Johnson administration had been lying about the true scope and of the war. The Nixon White House tried to prevent their publication.
Teapot Dome: Before Watergate, there was Teapot Dome, the early 1920s scandal that led to President Warren G. Harding's secretary of the interior being convicted for accepting bribes from oil companies to lease Navy petroleum reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming.
DNC campaign finance scandals: In 1996, Vice President Al Gore attended an event at a California Buddhist temple that illegally funneled $65,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Eventually, the party had to return nearly $3 million in forbidden gifts, some from foreign donors such as James Riady, an Indonesian businessman who was fined $8.6 million.
Johnson impeachment: Disputes between President Andrew Johnson and Radical Republicans in Congress spun into a constitutional crisis when the House voted to impeach him in 1868. He survived in the Senate—by one vote.
TeddyRoosevelt's corporate cash: After winning election as a trust-buster in 1904, Roosevelt and the Republican Party are revealed to have quietly courted big corporate donors.
The Grant administration: President Ulysses S. Grant's terms were marred by a succession of high-level scandals, including the Whiskey Ring, Belknap affair, the Delano Affair, the salary grab, and the Cattelism scandal. The administration's endemic corruption became known as "Grantism."
LBJ's mystery money: In 1963, Life magazine was preparing a bombshell exposé on how Vice President Lyndon Johnson had amassed a fortune through his connections to Texas oil barons. The article, which biographer Robert Caro says would have linked LBJ to the Bobby Baker Scandal, was set to drop in late November. Kennedy's assassination killed the story and a planned Senate investigation.
XYZ Affair: A diplomatic kerfuffle led to an undeclared "Quasi War" between the United States and France in the late 1790s. Back home, it led to passage of the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts and fueled the growing split between President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Hamilton's affair and insider trading: In 1797, former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton revealed that he had carried on an affair with a married woman—while bribing her husband to let it to continue. He also defended himself against accusations of having used his position to engage in insider trading.
US attorney firings: In 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned amid an investigation into whether the firing of nine US attorneys in 2006 was politically motivated.
Pardongate: As he left the White House in January, 2001, President Bill Clinton hastily pardoned Susan McDougal (for contempt of court during the Whitewater case), his brother Roger (for old drug charges), and Marc Rich, a fugitive tax cheat whose wife had been a major Clinton donor.
Lincoln Bedroom: The Clinton White House provided perks to big donors including stays in the Lincoln Bedroom as well as coffees, golf outings, or morning jogs with the president.
Whitewater: Failed Arkansas land deals involving Bill and Hilary Clinton spawns a wide-ranging investigation into several -gates: Filegate, Travelgate, and Troopergate (and eventually Ken Starr's probe of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair).
"Ma, ma, where's my pa?": "Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!" This catchy slogan followed Grover Cleveland after he won election in spite of reports that he had fathered an illegitimate child.
Clinton-Lewinksy affair and impeachment: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," the hug, the blue dress, Ken Starr, "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." Good times.
Fast and Furious: A botched ATF operation birthed a conspiracy theory that the Obama administration was coming for Americans' guns.
Jefferson-Hemings affair: Thomas Jefferson was dogged by rumors that he had fathered children with a slave who served as his "concubine." Jefferson never addressed the allegations, but it is now known that Sally Hemings had six of Jefferson's children.
Petticoat Affair, a.k.a. the Eaton Affair: Ridiculous by modern standards, this scandal rocked Washington when Andrew Jackson's secretary of war married a widow too soon after the death of her husband. It led to the resignation of most of the cabinet and was immortalized in the 1936 film, The Gorgeous Hussy, starring Joan Crawford.
Skeetgate: After President Obama says that "at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time," skeptics demand proof. A photo of the president shooting is produced; the skeptics insist it's faked.
Andrew Jackson adultery scandal: Forty years after he wed his wife Rachel, presidential candidate Jackson was attacked for marrying her before her divorce from her first husband was finalized, making Old Hickory an adulterer and the first lady a bigamist. He blamed the smear campaign for causing her death shortly after he took office.
Solyndra: The federal government gave more than $500 million to a solar firm that went belly up. Even congressional inquisitor Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.) eventually had to concede there was no there there.
Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS.com
Billygate: President Jimmy Carter took major heat when it was revealed that his ne'er-do-well brother Billy had received payments from the Libyan government.
Mary Todd Lincoln's price "flub-dubs": When Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency, the first lady set about remodeling the White House, but went over budget by $7,000. As complaints of her profligacy spread, the president wrote, "It would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said that the President of the United States had approved a bill overrunning an appropriation of $20,000 for flub-dubs for this damned old house when the soldiers cannot have blankets."
Alex Gibney's new documentary traces the rise and fall of WikiLeaks and its prickly founder.
Dave GilsonMay 23, 2013 6:00 AM
Julian Assange already hates this movie. That six-word review may be all that his die-hard supporters need to know about We Steal Secrets, Alex Gibney's exhaustive and exhausting new documentary on the rise and fall of WikiLeaks. Apparently without having seeing the film, which hits theaters tomorrow and will be available on demand on June 7, Assange has condemned it as a hatchet job, starting with its name. "An unethical and biased title in the context of pending criminal trials," WikiLeaks tweeted in January when the movie screened at Sundance. "It is the prosecution's claim and it is false."
Assange's preemptive attack reinforces one of the film's main themes: What happens when an admirable cause is headed by a thin-skinned, combative prick?
Like many observers of WikiLeaks' short, chaotic history, Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) starts out sympathetic before souring on Assange. At first, We Steal Secrets seems enthralled with its subject. When Assange quotes a favorite Midnight Oil song, Gibney obligingly blasts the tune—a haranguing one even by the band's standards—over a title sequence that ricochets through cyberspace.
What follows is a complimentary look at Australia's "most infamous hacker," a peripatetic cryptographic whiz who recognized the promise and threat posed by a site that could publish anonymous leaks from around the globe. Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, gushes that Assange is "a humanitarian anarchist, a kind of John Lennon-like revolutionary, dreaming of better world." Or as Assange declares with casual bravado, "I enjoy crushing bastards."
Military photographs show guards throwing away uneaten food and the "feeding chair" where detainees are force-fed.
Dave GilsonMay 4, 2013 6:00 AM
A "feeding chair" in the Guantanamo medical wing where hunger-striking detainees are force fed.
For more than two weeks, 100 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba have been on hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison and their indefinite confinement. First denied and downplayed by the military, the strike has now become a full-blown emergency, as the Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly reports:
Twenty-three detainees are currently being force-fed. At least twice a day, guards in riot gear tie each detainee to a chair or bed, and medical personnel force a tube up his nose and down his throat, and pump a can of Ensure or other dietary supplement into his stomach. There are so many detainees being force-fed that Guantanamo's medical personnel are working around the clock to keep up with the demand, and approximately 40 additional medical personnel just arrived in Guantanamo to help deal with the growing crisis.
Though they do not show any of these frantic scenes, recently released military photos offer a window onto how Guantanamo has been dealing with the unprecedented protest: A "feeding chair" where detainees are force-fed sits next to a tray of feeding tubes and a bottle of butter pecan Ensure; guards deliver meals through "bean holes" in detainees' cells, only to throw away the uneaten food; hospital beds behind chain-link fences with rings for shackles beside them.
Other images in the series, taken in early April by Sgt. Brian Godette of the Army 138th Public Affairs Detachment, depict scenes from Camps V and VI, where most prisoners are held: a sign asking soldiers to respect praying detainees, a stuffed recliner in the "media room" that looks almost normal until you notice the ankle restraints. Original photo captions are in quotes. (h/t Public Intelligence)
"Feeding chair and [internal] nourishment preparation inside the Joint Medical Group where the detainees receive medical care."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Internal nourishment preparation inside the Joint Medical Group where the detainees receive medical care."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Overnight medical stay area inside the Joint Medical Group."
"Shackles restraint point between hospital beds inside the Joint Medical Group."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Guard Force soldiers unload and wheel in food items delivered to Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp V to prepare for breakfast disbursement to detainees."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Dated boxes and marked containers designate items and freshness."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Fresh olives are part of standard food items delivered."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Guard Force soldier distributes lunch to detainee through a bean hole in Camp V cell."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Guard Force soldier discards breakfast delivered earlier in the morning which was refused by detainees in Camps V and VI."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"The Behavioral Health Unit where the detainees receive psychological medical care."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Detainees religious rights are respected throughout the detention camps as well as inside the Joint Medical Group."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Standard issued items to restricted detainees inside detention Camp V."
Sgt. Brian Godette
"Media room inside Camp V Detention Facility which provides detainees access to television and movies."
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Boston Marathon bombing is that it happened at all. While we've seen all manner of terrorist bomb plots since September 11—the Times Square bomber, the underwear bomber, even the guys who fantasized about destroying the Sears Tower—all have been thwarted by the FBI, the perpetrators' own bumbling, or both. If one or both of the suspects in last week's attack, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were motivated by radical Islamic beliefs, then they will have the dubious distinction of being the first jihadists to have set off a bomb on American soil since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
While America has been fixated on the threat of Islamic terrorism for more than a decade, all but a few domestic terror plots have failed. Between September 11, 2001, and the end of 2012, there were no successful bomb plots by jihadist terrorists in the United States. Jihadists killed 17 people in the United States in four separate incidents during this time, according to data collected by journalist Peter Bergen and the New America Foundation. All four of these incidents involved guns, including Nidal Hassan's shooting rampage at Fort Hood, which killed 13 people. In contrast, right-wing extremists killed 29 people during those 11 years.
The jihadists' record as bomb makers would probably be even worse if not for the FBI, which has reeled in dozens of would-be terrorists with its controversial informant program. Of the 203 jihadist terrorists counted by the New America Foundation, just 23 got their hands on explosives or materials to make a bomb; more than half of those obtained the components (often nonfunctioning) from federal informants or agents as part of a sting. Of the 174 nonjihadists, 51 right-wing terrorists and 5 anarchist terrorists tried making bombs. Only five of the right-wing terrorists got their bomb-making supplies via sting operations.
Using a slightly different methodology than Bergen, Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation also found that "homegrown" jihadist terror plots have had little success. Most post-9/11 plots, he writes, most "never got beyond the discussion stage, and most of those that did were stings in which the FBI provided fake bombs." A Mother Jones examination of the cases of more than 500 defendants charged in terrorism-related cases after 9/11 found that 31 percent were nabbed in a sting, while 10 percent were lured by an informant who controlled the conspiracy. Perhaps one reason the Tsarnaev brothers' alleged plot went as far as it did was that they did not seek out collaborators, avoiding tipping off the FBI—which had already checked out Tamerlan but apparently decided not to investigate him.