Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, a seminal account of the CIA, extraordinary rendition and torture, has an interview in the New Yorker with Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency who is about to be tried for violating the Espionage Act by leaking to a journalist secret documents about America’s covert surveillance of its own citizens. Drake, as Mayer puts it, is effectively being charged with being ‘an enemy of the state’. But it’s a state that, as Drake argues and as Mayer fleshes out, is out of control in its desire and capacity to spy upon its citizens. What has been created, in the words of one of Mayer’s interviewees, is a ‘national surveillance state’:

Even in an age in which computerized feats are commonplace, the NSA’s capabilities are breathtaking. The agency reportedly has the capacity to intercept and download, every six hours, electronic communications equivalent to the contents of the Library of Congress. Three times the size of the CIA, and with a third of the US’s entire intelligence budget, the NSA has a five-thousand-acre campus at Fort Meade protected by iris scanners and facial-recognition devices. The electric bill there is said to surpass seventy million dollars a year…

Drake says, ‘I feared for the future. If Pandora’s box was opened, what would the government become?’… The transformation of the NSA., he says, was so radical that ‘it wasn’t just that the brakes came off after 9/11—we were in a whole different vehicle.’

Few people have a precise knowledge of the size or scope of the NSA’s domestic-surveillance powers. An agency spokesman declined to comment on how the agency ‘performs its mission,’ but said that its activities are constitutional and subject to ‘comprehensive and rigorous’ oversight. But Susan Landau, a former engineer at Sun Microsystems, and the author of a new book, Surveillance or Security?, notes that, in 2003, the government placed equipment capable of copying electronic communications at locations across America. These installations were made, she says, at ‘switching offices’ that not only connect foreign and domestic communications but also handle purely domestic traffic. As a result, she surmises, the U.S. now has the capability to monitor domestic traffic on a huge scale. ‘Why was it done this way?’, she asks. ‘One can come up with all sorts of nefarious reasons, but one doesn’t want to think that way about our government.’

[Bill] Binney [a cryptologist and mathematician who wrote some of the critical spy software for the NSA] , for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later. In the past few years, the NSA has built enormous electronic-storage facilities in Texas and Utah. Binney says that an NSA e-mail database can be searched with “dictionary selection,” in the manner of Google…

Binney considers himself a conservative, and, as an opponent of big government, he worries that the NSA’s data-mining program is so extensive that it could help ‘create an Orwellian state.’  Whereas wiretap surveillance requires trained human operators, data mining is automated, meaning that the entire country can be watched. Conceivably, U.S. officials could ‘monitor the Tea Party, or reporters, whatever group or organization you want to target,’ he says. ‘It’s exactly what the Founding Fathers never wanted.’

The full interview and story is the The New Yorker. It is essential reading.

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