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Profile: Ryan Singel
Ryan Singel was a participant or observer in the following events:
Starting in 1997, the FBI constructs a sophisticated surveillance system that can perform near-instantaneous wiretaps on almost any telephone, cell phone, and Internet communications device, according to documents declassified in August 2007. The system is called the Digital Collection System Network, or DCSNet. It connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by land-line operators, Internet-telephony companies, and cellular providers. The documents show that DCSNet is, in reporter Ryan Singel’s words, “far more intricately woven into the nation’s telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.” Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor and surveillance expert, calls DCSNet a “comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS [short message service, a protocol allowing mobile devices to exchange text messages], and push-to-talk systems.” The system is an entire suite of software that together collects, sifts, and stores phone numbers, phone calls, and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping offices around the country to a sprawling private communications network. DCSNet is composed of three main clients:
The DCS-3000, also called “Red Hook,” handles pen-registers and trap-and-traces, a type of surveillance that collects signaling information but not communications content.
The DCS-6000, or “Digital Storm,” captures and collects the content—the spoken or written communications—of phone calls and text messages.
The most classified system of the three, the DCS-5000, is used for wiretaps targeting spies or terrorists.
Between the three, the system can allow FBI agents to monitor recorded phone calls and messages in real time, create master wiretap files, send digital recordings to translators, track the location of targets in real time using cell-tower information, and stream intercepts to mobile surveillance vans. The entire system is operated through a private, secure and self-contained backbone that is run for the government by Sprint. Singel gives the following example: “The network allows an FBI agent in New York, for example, to remotely set up a wiretap on a cell phone based in Sacramento, California, and immediately learn the phone’s location, then begin receiving conversations, text messages and voicemail pass codes in New York. With a few keystrokes, the agent can route the recordings to language specialists for translation.” Dialed numbers are subjected to data mining, including so-called “link analysis.” The precise number of US phones being monitored and recorded in this way is classified.
Genesis of DCSNet - The system was made possible by the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) (see January 1, 1995), which mandated that telecom providers must build “backdoors” in US telephone switches to be used by government wiretappers. CALEA also ordered telecom firms to install only switching equipment that met detailed wiretapping standards. Before CALEA, the FBI would bring a wiretap warrant to a particular telecom, and that firm would itself create a tap. Now, the FBI logs in directly to the telecom networks and monitors a surveillance target itself through DCSNet. FBI special agent Anthony DiClemente, chief of the Data Acquisition and Intercept Section of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division, says the DCS was originally intended in 1997 to be a temporary solution, but has grown into a full-featured CALEA-collection software suite. “CALEA revolutionizes how law enforcement gets intercept information,” he says. “Before CALEA, it was a rudimentary system that mimicked Ma Bell.” Now, under CALEA, phone systems and Internet service providers have been forced to allow DCSNet to access almost all of its data (see 1997-August 2007 and After).
Security Breaches - The system is vulnerable to hacking and security breaches (see 2003). [Wired News, 8/29/2007]
Wired News logo. [Source: Delve Networks]Evan Hansen, the editor in chief of Wired News, an online technical news site, explains why the site published a set of documents from AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009). Klein is working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in that organization’s lawsuit against AT&T for invading its customers’ privacy by taking part in the National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic wiretap operation (see January 31, 2006). The presiding judge, Vaughn Walker, has denied requests from the EFF and a number of news organizations to unseal the documents and make them public. For its part, AT&T wants the documents to remain sealed, claiming they are proprietary and that it would suffer harm if they were disclosed (see April 6-8, 2006). Hansen and the Wired News senior staff disagree. “In addition,” Hansen writes, “we believe the public’s right to know the full facts in this case outweighs AT&T’s claims to secrecy.” Hansen erroneously says that the documents seem “to be excerpted from material that was later filed in the lawsuit under seal,” though “we can’t be entirely sure, because the protective order prevents us from comparing the two sets of documents.” Klein later writes that the Wired News staff “confused my 2004 memo (see January 16, 2004) with my court-sealed legal declaration” (see February 23-28, 2006); even so, Klein will write, “it was true that all of the AT&T documents were still under court seal.” Hansen says Wired News reporter Ryan Singel received the Klein documents from “an anonymous source close to the litigation.” Hansen also writes: “We are filing a motion to intervene in the case in order to request that the court unseal the evidence, joining other news and civil rights organizations that have already done so, including the EFF, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg. Before publishing these documents we showed them to independent security experts, who agreed they pose no significant danger to AT&T. For example, they do not reveal information that hackers might use to easily attack the company’s systems.” Hansen writes that Wired’s publication of the documents does not violate Walker’s gag order concerning the documents’ publication, as the order specifically bars the EFF and its representatives—and no one else—from publishing or discussing them. “The court explicitly rejected AT&T’s motion to include Klein in the gag order and declined AT&T’s request to force the EFF to return the documents,” he notes (see May 17, 2006). [Wired News, 5/22/2006; Klein, 2009, pp. 75]
FBI director Robert Mueller orders a criminal probe into FBI officials who used misleading “exigent letters”—letters used in lieu of National Security Letters (NSLs) that demand information on an emergency basis—to acquire thousands of US citizens’ phone records. Mueller tells civil liberties groups of the probe, which focuses on the activities of the Communications Analysis Unit (CAU). The probe could result in criminal prosecutions for misuse of Patriot Act investigative tools. NSLs are powerful subpoenas that can be issued by FBI supervisors without court supervisions, and have played central roles in previous allegations of misuse (see February 2005). The probe is investigating incidents where CAU officials wrote “exigent letters” to telecommunications firms requesting immediate wiretaps and promising that court warrants would be forthcoming—but the warrants had never been applied for and were never issued. Some FBI employees have already been granted immunity in return for their testimony. NSLs are routinely used to provide investigators in terrorism and espionage cases with data from phone companies, banks, credit reporting agencies, and Internet service providers on any US citizens considered “relevant” to an ongoing investigation. This information is then stored in three separate computer systems, including a shared data-mining system called the Investigative Data Warehouse. Though warned in 2001 to use this power with restraint, FBI agents have so far issued over 47,000 NSLs, more than half of those targeting Americans. In the case of the CAU, a support bureau which analyzes suspected terrorist communications and provides intelligence to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, its officials cannot issue subpoenas, but must have counterterrorism investigators do so. But the CAU has issued at least 739 “exigent letters” to AT&T, Verizon, and MCI seeking information on over 3,000 phone numbers; some of the individual letters contained requests for over 100 numbers. The letters read in part, “Due to exigent circumstances, it is requested that records for the attached list of telephone numbers be provided. Subpoenas requesting this information have been submitted to the US Attorney’s Office who will process and serve them formally to [telecom firm] as expeditiously as possible.” [Wired News, 7/12/2007] (Reporter Ryan Singel notes, The most striking thing about these exigent letters… is that they all use the same pathetic, passive bureaucratese.”) [Wired News, 7/10/2007] No such subpoena requests had been filed with the particular US attorneys, and only some of the requests were later followed up with proper legal processes. CAU chief Bassem Youssef says he ended the problem after he took over the unit in 2005, and says his attempts to provide post-facto legal processes were often hampered by uncooperative field offices. Youssef is suing the FBI over his complaints that the bureau was wasting his Arabic-language skills and antiterrorism experience and the bureau’s alleged retaliation. [Wired News, 7/12/2007]
Entity Tags: Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Verizon Communications, USA Patriot Act, Ryan Singel, Robert S. Mueller III, Bassem Youssef, Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), AT&T, MCI, Investigative Data Warehouse, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) publishes a set of three non-classified documents secured from telecommunications giant AT&T by former AT&T technician and current whistleblower Mark Klein. Klein has used the documents to prove his assertions that AT&T colluded with the National Security Agency to illegally eavesdrop on Americans’ telephone and Internet communications (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009). The EFF has sued AT&T for violating its customers’ privacy, and Klein and the documents are key elements of its case (see February 23-28, 2006). After years of opposing their public disclosure and attempting to force their return (see April 6-8, 2006), AT&T acquiesced to the documents’ disclosure earlier this week after the EFF threatened to take the corporation to a federal appeals court. The documents were released in part by Wired News over a year ago against AT&T’s wishes (see May 17, 2006), and PBS also made them public as a part of a Frontline documentary. The Justice Department considered classifying the documents, then rejected the idea (see Late March - April 4, 2006). According to EFF’s Cindy Cohn, AT&T agreed to the disclosure of those portions to escape the embarrassment of arguing that documents available on the Internet for more than a year were secret. Wired’s Ryan Singel writes: “There are no surprises in the AT&T documentation… which consist of a subset of the pages already published by Wired News. They include AT&T wiring diagrams, equipment lists, and task orders that appear to show the company tapping into fiber-optic cables at the point where its backbone network connects to other ISPs at a San Francisco switching office. The documents appear to show the company siphoning off the traffic to a room packed with Internet-monitoring gear.” The EFF also releases a formerly sealed, signed declaration by Klein (see February 23-28, 2006) and a written analysis of the documentation by Internet expert J. Scott Marcus (see March 29, 2006). Marcus’s analysis, which had previously remained largely under court-ordered seal, is “the most interesting” of the releases, Singel writes. Marcus said the AT&T technical configuration allowed the NSA to conduct “surveillance and analysis of Internet content on a massive scale, including both overseas and purely domestic traffic,” and found it probable that AT&T had “15 or 20” secret facilities around the country, not just the few facilities of which Klein was aware. AT&T, with the Justice Department, is trying to prevent EFF’s lawsuit from continuing, insisting that such a trial would expose “state secrets” (see April 28, 2006 and May 13, 2006). Judge Vaughn Walker has already considered and dismissed that claim (see July 20, 2006); AT&T and the government hope an appeals court will find in their favor. Cohn tells Singel she hopes the documents will show the public that their case is based in fact and not speculation, and that the government’s claim of a national security risk is overblown: “It really paints them into a corner, how unreasonable their claims of state secrets are. I’m hoping [the document release] demonstrates we are right and know what we are talking about and that we don’t need much more to win our case. We are much closer than people think.” [Wired News, 6/13/2007]
Wired News reporter Ryan Singel examines the documents released as part of the FBI’s probe into the possibly illegal use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by its agents (see Before Mid-March, 2007). Singel finds that all of the letters originate from the same room in the FBI’s Washington headquarters, Room 4944. Almost all of them refer to a “Special Project,” and the only name on any of the letters is Larry Mefford. At the time the letters were written, Mefford was the Executive Assistant Director in charge of the Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division. His job primarily focused on preventing domestic terror attacks. Having Mefford’s name on the letters adds another layer of interest, Singel writes: “… Mefford’s name is on documents that requested personal information on Americans. Some of those requests included information known to be false to the agents signing them. That’s a federal crime, according to one former FBI agent.” It is unclear what the “Special Project” is, outside of its existence within the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit (CAU), which issued the NSLs in question. Why some of the NSLs requested over two pages of phone numbers as part of a single request is also unclear. Singel observes, “The documents also show that these ‘exigent letters’—essentially end runs around the rules set up to keep the FBI from trampling on citizens rights—weren’t devised by some rogue Jack Bauer-style agent [a reference to the popular TV action drama 24.]. The form letters originated from inside FBI Headquarters and in some cases, bear the name of a senior level FBI official who should have been aware of the letters’ legal grey status and possibility for abuse.” [Wired News, 7/10/2007]
Ryan Singel. [Source: Wired]According to Ryan Singel of Wired, the new Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007) gives the Bush administration “the power to order the nation’s communication service providers—which range from Gmail, AOL IM, Twitter, Skype, traditional phone companies, ISPs, internet backbone providers, Federal Express, and social networks—to create possibly permanent spying outposts for the federal government.” He adds: “These outposts need only to have a ‘significant’ purpose of spying on foreigners, would be nearly immune to challenge by lawsuit, and have no court supervision over their extent or implementation. Abuses of the outposts will be monitored only by the Justice Department, which has already been found to have underreported abuses of other surveillance powers to Congress.” In addition, Singel says the PAA redefines any monitoring of US citizens’ telephone and Internet communications “reasonably believed” to be outside the country as not surveillance, allows telecommunications firms to target both foreign and domestic parties for surveillance, and forces those firms to give assistance in secret, without informing Congress or the targeted parties. [Wired News, 8/6/2007]
AT&T attorney Michael Kellogg enters the courtroom. [Source: Wired News]The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco hears two related cases: one a government appeal to dismiss a case brought against AT&T for its involvement in the National Security Agency (NSA)‘s domestic wiretapping program (see July 20, 2006), and the other a challenge to the government’s authority to wiretap overseas phone calls brought on behalf of a now-defunct Islamic charity, Al Haramain (see February 28, 2006). The AT&T lawsuit is brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (see January 31, 2006). Among the onlookers is AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009), who has provided key documentation for the EFF lawsuit (see Early January 2006).
Government Lawyer: Court Should Grant 'Utmost Deference' to Bush Administration - Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, arguing on behalf of the US government, tells Judge Harry Pregerson, one of the three judges presiding over the court, that allowing the EFF lawsuit against AT&T to go forward would result in “exceptionally grave harm to national security in the United States,” even though a previous judge has ruled otherwise (see July 20, 2006) and the government itself has admitted that none of the material to be used by EFF is classified as any sort of state secret (see June 23, 2006). Pregerson says that granting such a request would essentially make his court a “rubber stamp” for the government, to which Garre argues that Pregerson should grant the “utmost deference” to the Bush administration. Pregerson retorts: “What does utmost deference mean? Bow to it?” [Wired News, 8/15/2007] Klein will later accuse Garre of using “scare tactics” to attempt to intimidate the judges into finding in favor of AT&T and the government. [Klein, 2009, pp. 79]
Government Refuses to Swear that Domestic Surveillance Program Operates under Warrant - Garre says that the goverment’s domestic surveillance program operates entirely under judicial warrant; he says the government is not willing to sign a sworn affidavit to that effect. Reporter Kevin Poulsen, writing for Wired News, says that Garre’s admission of the government’s reluctance to swear that its domestic surveillance program operates with warrants troubles all three judges. AT&T attorney Michael Kellogg argues that AT&T customers have no proof that their communications are being given over to the government without warrants, and therefore the EFF lawsuit should be dismissed. “The government has said that whatever AT&T is doing with the government is a state secret,” Kellogg says. “As a consequence, no evidence can come in whether the individuals’ communications were ever accepted or whether we played any role in it.” EFF attorney Robert Fram argues that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows citizens to challenge electronic surveillance by permitting courts to hear government evidence in chambers. He is careful, Poulsen writes, to note that EFF does not want specific information on the NSA’s sources and methods, and says that EFF already has enough evidence to prove its assertion that AT&T compromised its customers’ privacy by colluding with the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.
Government Mocks Whistleblower's AT&T Documentation - Garre mocks Klein’s AT&T documents, saying that all they prove is that the NSA’s secret room in AT&T’s San Francisco facility (see Late 2002-Early 2003, January 2003, and October 2003) “has a leaky air conditioner and some loose cables in the room.” Fram counters that Klein’s documentation is specific and damning. It proves that the NSA housed a splitter cabinet in that secret room that “split” data signals, allowing the NSA to wiretap literally millions of domestic communications without the knowledge of AT&T customers (see February 2003, Fall 2003, Late 2003, and Late 2003). Fram says Klein’s documents, along with other non-classified documentation EFF has presented, proves “the privacy violation on the handover of the Internet traffic at the splitter into the secret room, which room has limited access to NSA-cleared employees. What is not part of our claim is what happens inside that room.” Klein’s documentation proves the collusion between AT&T and the NSA, Fram states, but Judge M. Margaret McKeown questions this conclusion. According to Poulsen, McKeown seems more willing to grant the government the argument that it must protect “state secrets” than Pregerson.
Government Argues for Dismissal of Al Haramain Case - As in the AT&T portion of the appeal hearing, the government, represented by Assistant US Attorney General Thomas Brody, argues for the Al Haramain lawsuit’s dismissal, saying, “The state secrets privilege requires dismissal of this case.” Even the determination as to whether Al Haramain was spied upon, he argues, “is itself a state secret.” The Top Secret government document that Al Haramain is using as the foundation of its case is too secret to be used in court, Brody argues, even though the government itself accidentally provided the charity with the document. Even the plaintiff’s memories of the document constitute “state secrets” and should be disallowed, Brody continues. “This document is totally non-redactable and non-segregable and cannot even be meaningfully described,” he says. A disconcerted Judge McKeown says, “I feel like I’m in Alice and Wonderland.” Brody concludes that it is possible the Al Haramain attorneys “think or believe or claim they were surveilled. It’s entirely possible that everything they think they know is entirely false.” [Wired News, 8/15/2007]
No Rulings Issued - The appeals court declines to rule on either case at this time. Klein will later write, “It was clear to everyone that this panel would, if they ever issued a ruling, deny the ‘state secrets’ claim and give the green light for the EFF lawsuit to go forward.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 79-81] Wired News’s Ryan Singel writes that the panel seems far more sympathetic to the EFF case than the Al Haramain case. The judges seem dismayed that the government fails to prove that no domestic surveillance program actually exists in the EFF matter. However, they seem far more willing to listen to the government’s case in the Al Haramain matter, even though McKeown says that the government’s argument has an “Alice in Wonderland” feel to it. Singel believes the government is likely to throw out the secret document Al Haramain uses as the foundation of its case. However, he writes, “all three judges seemed to believe that the government could confirm or deny a secret intelligence relationship with the nation’s largest telecom, without disclosing secrets to the world.… So seemingly, in the eyes of today’s panel of judges, in the collision between secret documents and the state secrets privilege, ‘totally secret’ documents are not allowed to play, but sort-of-secret documents—the AT&T documents—may be able to trump the power of kings to do as they will.” [Wired News, 8/15/2007] Wired News’s David Kravets notes that whichever way the court eventually rules, the losing side will continue the appeals process, probably all the way to the US Supreme Court. The biggest question, he says, is whether the NSA is still spying on millions of Americans. [Wired News, 8/15/2007]
Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, US Supreme Court, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bush administration (43), Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, AT&T, David Kravets, Ryan Singel, Thomas Brody, National Security Agency, Mark Klein, Kevin Poulsen, M. Margaret McKeown, Gregory Garre, Harry Pregerson, Robert Fram, Michael Kellogg
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) lets slip the news that changes proposed to US surveillance laws drastically increase the government’s ability to conduct electronic surveillance inside the US. While speaking against an amendment that would require the government to destroy non-emergency evidence procured through domestic surveillance if a court later finds the surveillance was illegal, Rockefeller reveals that the new laws will not just “make it easier for the NSA to wiretap terrorists,” as the argument goes, but will allow the NSA to, in reporter Ryan Singel’s words, “secretly and unilaterally install filters inside America’s phone and Internet infrastructure.” Rockefeller tells his fellow senators: “Unlike traditional [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] application orders which involve collection on one individual target, the new FISA provisions create a system of collection. The courts role in this system of collection is not to consider probable cause on individual targets but to ensure that procedures used to collect intelligence are adequate. The courts’ determination of the adequacy of procedures therefore impacts all electronic communications gathered under the new mechanisms, even if it involves thousands of targets.” Singel puts it more plainly: “In short, the changes legalize Room 641A, the secret spying room inside AT&T’s San Francisco Internet switching center” (see November 7-8, 2007). FISA judges will, if the law is passed, no longer evaluate whether the government has sufficient cause to eavesdrop on someone inside the US. Instead, the judges will only be able to evaluate descriptions of what the NSA is doing with its “filters.” There is no provision in the new bill to penalize the NSA for conducting illegal surveillances. [Wired News, 2/5/2008]
Retired AT&T “whistleblower” Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009) has a short essay published in Wired News, sharply criticizing the recently passed legislation that amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA—see July 10, 2008) and granted telecommunications firms immunity from prosecution for helping government agencies illegally spy on American citizens. Klein initially offered the essay in letter form to the New York Times, but although the editors there showed what Klein will call “some interest,” they rejected the letter. Instead, Wired News’s Ryan Singel accepted the letter for one of his “Threat Level” columns. Singel describes Klein as “furious” at the vote, and quotes Klein: “[Wednesday]‘s vote by Congress effectively gives retroactive immunity to the telecom companies and endorses an all-powerful president. It’s a Congressional coup against the Constitution. The Democratic leadership is touting the deal as a ‘compromise,’ but in fact they have endorsed the infamous Nuremberg defense: ‘Just following orders.’ The judge can only check their paperwork. This cynical deal is a Democratic exercise in deceit and cowardice.… Congress has made the FISA law a dead letter—such a law is useless if the president can break it with impunity. Thus the Democrats have surreptitiously repudiated the main reform of the post-Watergate era and adopted Nixon’s line: ‘When the president does it that means that it is not illegal.’ This is the judicial logic of a dictatorship. The surveillance system now approved by Congress provides the physical apparatus for the government to collect and store a huge database on virtually the entire population, available for data mining whenever the government wants to target its political opponents at any given moment—all in the hands of an unrestrained executive power. It is the infrastructure for a police state.” [Wired News, 6/27/2008; Klein, 2009, pp. 108]
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