How America Became Orwellian: A Short History of Big Brother Sam (ProPublica)

Cora Currier, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer write at

On Wednesday, the Guardian published a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over data for all the calls made on its network on an “ongoing, daily basis.” Other revelations about surveillance of phone and digital communications have followed.

That the National Security Agency has engaged in such activity isn’t entirely new: Since 9/11, we’ve learned about large-scale surveillance by the spy agency from a patchwork of official statements, classified documents, and anonymously sourced news stories.


Surveillance court created

After a post-Watergate Senate investigation documented abuses of government surveillance, Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to regulate how the government can monitor suspected spies or terrorists in the U.S. The law establishes a secret court that issues warrants for electronic surveillance or physical searches of a “foreign power” or “agents of a foreign power” (broadly defined in the law). The government doesn’t have to demonstrate probable cause of a crime, just that the “purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information.”

The court’s sessions and opinions are classified. The only information we have is a yearly report to the Senate documenting the number of “applications” made by the government. Since 1978, the court has approved thousands of applications – and rejected just 11.

Oct. 2001

Patriot Act passed

In the wake of 9/11, Congress passes the sweeping USA Patriot Act. One provision, section 215, allows the FBI to ask the FISA court to compel the sharing of books, business documents, tax records, library check-out lists – actually, “any tangible thing” – as part of a foreign intelligence or international terrorism investigation. The required material can include purely domestic records.

Oct. 2003

‘Vacuum-cleaner surveillance’ of the Internet

AT&T technician Mark Klein discovers what he believes to be newly installed NSA data-mining equipment in a “secret room” at a company facility in San Francisco. Klein, who several years later goes public with his story to support a lawsuit against the company, believes the equipment enables “vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet – whether that be peoples’ e-mail, web surfing or any other data.”

March 2004

Ashcroft hospital showdown

In what would become one of the most famous moments of the Bush Administration, presidential aides Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales show up at the hospital bed of John Ashcroft. Their purpose? To convince the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on the extension of a secret domestic spying program. Ashcroft refuses, believing the warrantless program to be illegal.

The hospital showdown was first reported by the New York Times, but two years later Newsweek provided more detail, describing a program that sounds similar to the one the Guardian revealed this week. The NSA, Newsweek reported citing anonymous sources, collected without court approval vast quantities of phone and email metadata “with cooperation from some of the country’s largest telecommunications companies” from “tens of millions of average Americans.” The magazine says the program itself began in September 2001 and was shut down in March 2004 after the hospital incident. But Newsweek also raises the possibility that Bush may have found new justification to continue some of the activity.

Dec. 2005

Warrantless wiretapping revealed

The Times, over the objections of the Bush Administration, reveals that since 2002 the government “monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants.” The program involves actually listening in on phone calls and reading emails without seeking permission from the FISA Court.

Jan. 2006

Bush defends wiretapping

President Bush defends what he calls the “terrorist surveillance program” in a speech in Kansas. He says the program only looks at calls in which one end of the communication is overseas.

March 2006

Patriot Act renewed

The Senate and House pass legislation to renew the USA Patriot Act with broad bipartisan support and President Bush signs it into law. It includes a few new protections for records required to be produced under the controversial section 215.

May 2006

Mass collection of call data revealed

USA Today reports that the NSA has been collecting data since 2001 on phone records of “tens of millions of Americans” through three major phone companies, Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth (though the companies level of involvement is later disputed.) The data collected does not include content of calls but rather data like phone numbers for analyzing communication patterns.

As with the wiretapping program revealed by the Times, the NSA data collection occurs without warrants, according to USA Today. Unlike the wiretapping program, the NSA data collection was not limited to international communications.


Court authorizes collection of call data

The mass data collection reported by the Guardian this week apparently was first authorized by the FISA court in 2006, though exactly when is not clear. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said Thursday, “As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years.” Similarly, the Washington Post quoted an anonymous “expert in this aspect of the law” who said the document published by the Guardian appears to be a “routine renewal” of an order first issued in 2006.

It’s not clear whether these orders represent court approval of the previously warrantless data collection that USA Today described.

Jan. 2007

Bush admin says surveillance now operating with court approval

Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announces that the FISA court has allowed the government to target international communications that start or end in the U.S., as long as one person is “a member or agent of al Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization.” Gonzalez says the government is ending the “terrorist surveillance program,” and bringing such cases under FISA approval.

Aug. 2007

Congress expands surveillance powers

The FISA court reportedly changes its stance and puts more limits on the Bush administration’s surveillance (the details of the court’s move are still not known.) In response, Congress quickly passes, and President Bush signs, a stopgap law, the Protect America Act.

In many cases, the government can now get blanket surveillance warrants without naming specific individuals as targets. To do that, the government needs to show that they’re not intentionally targeting people in the U.S., even if domestic communications are swept up in the process.

Sept. 2007

Prism begins

The FBI and the NSA get access to user data from Microsoft under a top-secret program known as Prism, according to an NSA PowerPoint briefing published by the Washington Post and the Guardian this week. In subsequent years, the government reportedly gets data from eight other companies including Apple and Google. “The extent and nature of the data collected from each company varies,” according to the Guardian.

July 2008

Congress renews broader surveillance powers

Congress follows up the Protect America Act with another law, the FISA Amendments Act, extending the government’s expanded spying powers for another four years. The law now approaches the kind of warrantless wiretapping that occurred earlier in Bush administration. Senator Obama votes for the act.

The act also gives immunity to telecom companies for their participation in warrantless wiretapping.

April 2009

NSA ‘overcollects’

The New York Times reports that for several months, the NSA had gotten ahold of domestic communications it wasn’t supposed to. The Times says it was likely the result of “technical problems in the NSA’s ability” to distinguish between domestic and overseas communications. The Justice Department says the problems have been resolved.

Feb. 2010

Controversial Patriot Act provision extended

President Obama signs a temporary one-year extension of elements of the Patriot Act that were set to expire — including Section 215, which grants the government broad powers to seize records.

May 2011

Patriot Act renewed, again

The House and Senate pass legislation to extend the overall Patriot Act. President Obama, who is in Europe as the law is set to expire, directs the bill to be signed with an “autopen” machine in his stead. It’s the first time in history a U.S. president has done so.

March 2012

Senators warn cryptically of overreach

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

In a letter to the attorney general, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., write, “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details” of how the government has interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Because the program is classified, the senators offer no further details.

July 2012

Court finds unconstitutional surveillance

According to a declassified statement by Wyden, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court held on at least one occasion that information collection carried out by the government was unconstitutional. But the details of that episode, including when it happened, have never been revealed.

Dec. 2012

Broad powers again extended

Congress extends the FISA Amendments Act another five years, and Obama signs it into law. Sens. Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, offer amendments requiring more disclosure about the law’s impact. The proposals fail.

April 2013

Verizon order issued

As the Guardian revealed this week, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Roger Vinson issues a secret court order directing Verizon Business Network Services to turn over “metadata” — including the time, duration and location of phone calls, though not what was said on the calls — to the NSA for all calls over the next three months. Verizon is ordered to deliver the records “on an ongoing daily basis.” The Wall Street Journal reports this week that AT&T and Sprint have similar arrangements.

The Verizon order cites Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to request a court order that requires a business to turn over “any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items)” relevant to an international spying or terrorism investigation. In 2012, the government asked for 212 such orders, and the court approved them all.

June 2013

Congress and White House respond

Following the publication of the Guardian’s story about the Verizon order, Sens. Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the chair and vice of the Senate intelligence committee, hold a news conference to dismiss criticism of the order. “This is nothing particularly new,” Chambliss says. “This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority, and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledges the collection of phone metadata but says the information acquired is “subject to strict restrictions on handling” and that “only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed.” Clapper alsoissues a statement saying that the collection under the Prism program was justified under the FISA Amendments of 2008, and that it is not “intentionally targeting” any American or person in the U.S.

Statements from the tech companies reportedly taking part in the Prism program variously disavow knowledge of the program and merely state in broad terms they follow the law.

Mirrored from ProPublica

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9 Responses

  1. Governments have always wanted to spy on its citizens. As time has gone by the technology has got better and better and at the present level, its almost foolproof and total. The moment anything new is invented the government will always make use of it even though they managed perfectly well before. We have cctv cameras everywhere, we have road traffic speed cameras on just about every bit of road etc. When electricity was discovered the Americans straight away used in for the electric chair to kill people. In car sat navs are already being used to track motorist where ever they go, as indeed are cell phones etc. The internet has sent shivers down the spines of the state, because for the first time people could communicate and publish opinion with out any control by the all powerful government. This they appear to have now overcome and I doubt they will be relinquishing this power any time soon. Governments the world over must give thanks for terrorists as it gives them the excuse for unfettered power.

  2. It’s too bad that the press covering George W. Bush’s speech at Kansas State University in January 2006 didn’t spend more time focusing on his defense of wiretapping. Instead, the majority of the reports were about his bumbling response to a question about whether or not he had seen Brokeback Mountain.

    link to

  3. The person responsible for the leaks has been revealed as Edward Snowden. He has sacrificed his life essentially for the sake of our freedom. The fact that he must exile himself out of fear for this government is sufficient testimony that our democracy is dead. What can we do to help Snowden? What can we do to restore our democracy? Calling our representatives or impotent ‘occupy’ sit-ins seem totally inadequate. Ward Churchill proven more right than ever before.

    • It is now being said that his freedom is in the hands of the Chinese government. If they decide to hand him over then He could be in a United States District Court within 24 hours.

      In the past, the government has taken a dim view of disgruntled former personnel who have disclosed confidential matters or criticized the Agency.

      The Department of State in 1981 won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court against former CIA officer Philip Agee, who authored “Inside the Company: A CIA Diary” to revoke his passport. He eventually died in Cuba.

      In the early 1970s the U.S. government, in the first case of censorship of a book, obtained an injunction against the full publication “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence” by former CIA official Victor Marchetti and ex-State Department analyst John Marks. This book eventually became a key factor in the impanelling of the Church Committee.

      • “In the past, the government has taken a dim view of disgruntled former personnel who have disclosed confidential matters or criticized the Agency. The Department of State in 1981 won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court against former CIA officer Philip Agee, who authored “Inside the Company: A CIA Diary” to revoke his passport. He eventually died in Cuba.”

        Philip Agee did not just disclose confidential matters and criticize the Agency. Agee disclosed the names of CIA case officers and agents operating overseas, putting their lives in danger.

  4. We can go well back before 1978 in Metro Detroit to discover evidence of highly questionable surveillance against U.S. citizens.

    William Bufalino had been a prominent attorney that repesented the Teamsters union and its then-president Jimmy Hoffa – Mr. Hoffa had been under FBI investigation and prosecution during the 1950s and 1960s.

    Bufalino sued Michigan Bell Telephone Company after ithad been discovered that his law firm’s telephones were subject to surveillance equipment. That action reached the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals during 1969.

    See: link to

    Abdeen Jabara, who successfully appealed the death sentence of Sirhan Sirhan and received a ruling reducing the sentence to life imprisonment in 1972, filed suit via the ACLU in United States District Court in Detroit in late 1972 alleging improper surveillance by the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency. That case was litigated for over a decade and established landmark judicial opinions on the legality of government surveillance and acccess of citizens to government records about them pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.

    See: link to

    Jabara currently practices law in New York and has collaborated with former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

  5. i just asked this in the 2nd v 4th amend post, but this is prbly a more appropriate thread for it… in the ‘boundless informant’ slides @ the guardian, what does the ‘SI’ stand for? as far as i can tell, it’s not a standard classification type acronym… and wikipedia tells me there is something called ‘the si organization, inc’… i have asked about this in a few different forums, have not yet gotten any feedback…

    i’m hoping that’s bcuz it’s either a stupid question or no one knows, as opposed to the chilling effect living under a surveillance state has on free expression.

    any reply is welcome,

  6. yes the irony is large. to think Bin Laden for half a million, i heard that was the cost of 9-11 for Bin Laden, helped overthrow the supposed appearances of “democracy” of the US. last count the numbers for Homeland Security was almost $900 billion.and that’s just DHS and not he 16 spying agencies we hear as working to “protect us.” leaves out Defense Dept costs too. lol

    for a mere $500 thousand, Bin Laden and his group of a few Saudis/aka 9-11, were the reason for the passage of the Patriot Act, FISA, et al,, ( Obama voted for FISA before being elected President,) and numerous other Spying measure on Americans. weird irony, having a terrorist be the cause of the demise of our Freedom and Security, instead of ending up protecting our freedoms and securities. the Global War on Terror has come home to America!

    Bin Laden is supposedly dead, but the Spying on America is just beginning in it’s long life, long after 9-11. the Americans who say i am doing nothing wrong and have nothing to fear from such a Big Brother Government are just next in line to those the Government chooses to “get.” Wait till you say anything. no second chances, here, folks. so, lay low and suck up the Spying or be the next in line for Gitmo. We do have choices!!!

    to have such a terrorist be the impetus/excuse for a Totalitarian US state is such an irony and speaks volumes. and to watch our Congressvarmints use 9-11 as an excuse to say they “can’t” tell us. Well, that is so “nice” of them. to hear all the drumbeats for more silence and ignorance lest we “help” the terrorists or “enemies” of the US, well, gosh, i suppose the saying, “Ignorance is Bliss” is something we are going to have to really “get used to.” we spied-on-Americans had better enjoy our “security” from now on. obviously, we aren’t smart enough to be told how “bad” a world is out there or if the spying has an “end” date. cause, you know, loose lips sink ships, et al.

    our “Daddy” Government will protect us and we “should” be content to know “the Government” is taking care of us and providing “security” for us. too bad about that “Freedom” thing. Times change, you know. “They” know what’s best us, for sure!!!!. Just like East German, Soviet Russia, Communist China, Myanmar. Dissent is evil and unAmerican. Spying on Americans is the only way to keep us safe and “free” from Terrorism.

    war is peace, and you know, we have always been at war with Eastasia.

    or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in another version. lol.

    • Hey, bernard, I hope things are better where you are! The descent isn’t always a proceso rápido, It happens in small little ways too…

      “Longboat Key police to photograph vehicle license plates”

      Longboat Key, Florida – Longboat Key has plenty of picture perfect spots, but later this month, town cameras will be pointed not at the palms, but at the pavement.

      Cameras mounted near the two bridges leading to Longboat Key will take pictures of the vehicles both coming and going. The cameras will snap the rear end of the cars and their license plates. If a car is stolen or if the registered owner is wanted, dispatchers at the police department will receive an alert.

      Police Chief Pete Cumming sees the system as a crime prevention tool.

      “It doesn’t photograph the occupants, all it does is alert us to vehicles associated with criminal violations,” he explains.

      The license plate recognition program is similar to the mobile cameras already used by some law enforcement agencies on their patrol cars. However, privacy advocates are leery of government cameras recording the movements of citizens.

      “Maybe they’re directed at license plates, but what they’re doing is a couple of things; for one, they’re creating a database of who is coming and going and when,” says attorney and ACLU representative Andrea Mogensen. “So the government building that database is always subject to abuse and it’s always going to lead to a privacy problem.”

      However, some people who spend at least part of their year on Longboat Key say the prospect of cameras doesn’t bother them. “It doesn’t bother me that law enforcement knows that I’m here,” says Mary Enkema.

      And Barbara Azzoli says, “I don’t feel like it’s an invasion of privacy or anything. I think security is a good thing.”

      The $80,000 camera and plate recognition system is being paid for by money from a law enforcement forfeiture fund.

      link to

      Kind of makes me glad I’m not going to live forever…

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