The NSA's Wiretapping of Americans Abroad
By Kim Zetter
October 10, 2008 | 5:06:27 PM
A top secret NSA wiretapping facility in Georgia accused of spying on Americans illegally was hastily staffed with inexperienced reservists in the months following September 11, where they worked under conflicting orders and with little supervision, according to three former workers at the spy complex.
"Nobody knew exactly what the heck we were doing," said a former translator for the project, code named Highlander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were figuring out the rules as we were going along."
Former Army Reserve linguist Adrienne Kinne, who worked at the facility at Fort Gordon, won new attention this week for her year-old claim that she and her group intercepted and transcribed satellite phone calls of American civilians in the Middle East for the National Security Agency. Senate intelligence committee chair Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) opened a probe into the alleged abuses after ABC News reported on them Thursday.
Threat Level spoke with Kinne extensively last year about the alleged systematic surveillance of Americans and others operating in the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks. She provided a number of details about some of the calls and how the operation was conducted.
Aid workers and journalists were specifically targeted in the program, and their phone numbers were added to a "priority list", Kinne said last year. Among those under surveillance were workers from nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations Development Programme, as well as journalists staying in Baghdad at the time of the Iraq invasion. The intercepted calls included conversations among American, British, Australian and other civilian foreign nationals in the Middle East, as well as conversations between aid workers and journalists in the Middle East and their family members in the United States.
"If it was happening then I'm sure it's happening now, and who knows on what scale," Kinne said. "That's the thing that really bothers me."
But at the time we were unable to confirm her account of the spying. Two coworkers of Kinne's, who spoke with Threat Level on condition of anonymity, conceded that the group operated under ambiguous rules and with poor supervision, but insisted no deliberate eavesdropping on Americans occurred.
Now a second former Arabic linguist with the Navy has corroborated her claims to ABC, and to NSA expert James Bamford, who includes the story in his upcoming book Shadow Factory.
If the allegations are true, it would seem to indicate that warrantless spying of Americans approved by President Bush following 9/11 expanded rapidly beyond U.S. borders to citizens overseas, notwithstanding United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, or USSID 18 -- an NSA rule that bars overseas surveillance of Americans without authorization and probable cause.
Kinne first raised her allegations in July 2007 to a blogger named David Swanson whom she'd encountered after an anti-war protest. Threat Level contacted her a couple of days later and spoke with her a number of times over several months.
Kinne, who is 31, served in the U.S. Army Reserves as a sergeant and an Arabic linguist from October 2001 to August 2003 at a U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia, which operated as a listening post for the National Security Agency. Kinne had served active duty in the U.S. Army as an intelligence linguist with a top secret SCI security clearance from 1994 to 1998, and was in inactive reserves on September 11, 2001.
In desperate need of Arabic translators with classified clearances, the Army called Kinne's reserve battalion for active duty. Kinne served with the 201st Military Intelligence battalion, which is part of the 513th Military Intelligence brigade.
Kinne said that during the time she was at Fort Gordon, the government was intercepting and listening to phone calls made by American citizens and allies working for aid organizations and media outlets.
At first, Kinne didn't think they were doing anything wrong because in mid-2002, several months after the surveillance began, a supervisor told her group of linguists and analysts that they had received a "waiver" that allowed them to intercept and listen to the conversations of Americans. The waiver also gave them permission to spy on British, Canadian and Australian citizens Kinne said.
Under federal law, such a waiver would usually require special national security circumstances –- such as an imminent threat of death or attack. But Kinne said the people whose conversations she targeted didn't discuss information of a military or terrorist nature, and the interceptions occurred over the entire Middle East –- not just in war zones. The surveillance was still going on when Kinne left active reserve duty in August 2003.
Kinne's mission at Fort Gordon, which was given the name Highlander, intercepted only communication sent through satellite phones, which included faxes. This represented a change from her active duty in the 1990s when her group had intercepted only live radio transmissions involving military targets in the Middle East. The operation that began in 2001 involved region-wide interceptions, which meant that satellite calls of businessmen, journalists and other civilians were sometimes vacuumed up with everything else.
Generally, when incidental interception of Americans occurs, there are procedures for handling the intercepts. Under USSID 18, recordings of such calls are supposed to be abandoned and destroyed when a U.S. citizen is identified. The only exceptions to this rule are when the attorney general affirms that the surveillance target is believed to be an agent of a foreign power, or the purpose of the collection is to acquire "significant foreign intelligence information."
Kinne's description of the interceptions, however, indicated that U.S. aid workers and journalists were routinely targeted without cause.
To illustrate that contrast, Kinne recalled a conversation intercepted by her army intelligence unit in 1997, in which one of the parties to the call mentioned the name of a U.S. politician who was coming to the Middle East for a visit. Under USSID 18, the names of members of the U.S. legislative branch cannot appear in intelligence reports without special authorization, and Kinne said her group deleted every record they collected that mentioned the politician's name.
William Weaver, who worked in the U.S. Army signals intelligence for eight years in Berlin and Augsberg, Germany, concurred with her assessment of how seriously USSID 18 was regarded.
"The way USSID 18 was treated by us was that it came down from God and was sacrosanct," said Weaver, who is now an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas, El Paso. "We were told at training and many times after that, that if you violated USSID 18 you could spend the rest of your life in prison. The mindset was that you do not intercept U.S. citizens. And the minute you recognized that you intercepted, you immediately reported up the chain of command."
Kinne said everything changed shortly after her unit intercepted a call in early to mid-2002 between British and U.S. aid workers. The two were discussing day-to-day work details when the British worker told the American, "You should be careful about what you're saying because the Americans are listening to us." The American responded that USSID 18 barred U.S. authorities from spying on the communication of Americans, so the British worker had nothing to worry about.
Kinne said her supervisor, Chief Warrant Officer John Berry, and others were livid.
"[They] acted as if he was betraying some hugely intense national secret to a foreigner," she said. "So that's when they were like, 'We need to be able to listen to them'."
Shortly thereafter, she said she was informed that her group had received a waiver from USSID 18. She said it was communicated verbally during one of her shifts."They never showed us anything in writing," said Kinne. "But we never expected to get anything in writing."
Threat Level contacted Berry, who now works as a reporter for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, but he hung up the phone at the first mention of Kinne's name.
Kinne said that in the nearly two years she was monitoring conversations, her group received calls in numerous languages, including Farsi, Pashtu, Dari, Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese and Russian. Between 10-20 percent of the calls she monitored involved English-speakers, which included Americans, Canadians and British citizens. Nearly 99 percent of the calls she monitored were non-military related. Comparatively few of the calls she processed were in Arabic.
The calls were intercepted and digitally recorded by members of the Army's military intelligence unit in Kuwait then sent to Fort Gordon. The system would pick up conversations for whatever phone numbers the military programmed into its interception system, though Kinne assumed the system also randomly swept satellite calls for untargeted numbers, since so many calls were recorded for numbers whose owners were unknown.
For the first couple of months Kinne and her colleagues didn't know the identity of the people connected to the phone numbers they monitored.
"At that point in time, we were just given numbers and we ... were still sorting out who belonged to what," she said. "That's why we initially started collecting Americans and other nationals because we didn't know whose number belonged to whom."
Once they identified speakers, they typed the person's name or organization into the system, so that when a conversation involving that number was intercepted again, the name appeared on their computer screen. Although the system allowed them to block phone numbers identified as belonging to a nongovernmental organization or journalist, they never did so. Instead, she said, they added the numbers of humanitarian aid organizations and journalists to a priority list.
"They were 'priority five,' from what I remember," she said. "'Priority one' was terrorist organizations. 'Priority five' is middle of the road. 'Priority nine' was just unidentified numbers. Not only were we given the ability to listen to [NGOs and journalists], but it was programmed into our system to listen to them."
Periodically, they received a list of new numbers that had been programmed into the system.
"I don't know where the numbers were coming from," Kinne said. "We were just given raw materials and we had to identify what number belonged to what organization and prioritize and set up a list."
They wrote a report on each call, except those made to parties in the U.S. Kinne said they were just instructed to listen to those calls. She later said in another conversation that some people in her group did write reports involving conversations of Americans and Australians, but didn't reference the nationality of the speaker in their report.
"Americans 'in-country' were fair game as long as you didn't identify them as American," she said. "People wrote reports on what journalists said all the time."
Kinne's recollections of intercepted calls were vague on details, as one might expect of someone recalling four-year-old conversations that held no significance at the time. She was unable, for example, to recall the names of people whose calls were intercepted or the names of specific media outlets to which the monitored journalists belonged. The few call details she did remember stood out in her mind because of the nature of the calls or circumstances surrounding them.
For example, Kinne was reprimanded for listening to one call when she should have been focused on a fax that her unit intercepted purporting to identify the location of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The fax arrived in the middle of the night, around the time of the Iraq invasion. Kinne was monitoring a call involving two English-speaking humanitarian aid workers who were in a vehicle frantically trying to reach their office to find cover before bombs began raining on the city.
"I just remember they were ... calling in their position [to their colleagues] every 10 to 15 minutes or so because they were worried about their safety," she said.
Kinne filed several reports about the aid workers and gave their location to her supervisor, believing that U.S. military personnel might help the aid workers, or at least refrain from shooting their vehicle. But while she was monitoring the workers, a fax arrived, several pages long and written in Arabic. Even though the fax was from a phone number with a higher priority, Kinne ignored it because she felt the lives of the aid workers were more important.
When another worker later read the fax and realized its significance, all of the workers were instructed to drop everything to translate it. Kinne said the fax purported to describe the location of chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As soon as her group completed the translation, she said it was sent to the White House -– the only time information was sent directly in this manner.
After the information was on its way, Kinne looked at the source of the document and began to doubt its authenticity. She said it came from the Iraqi National Congress or Iraqi National Accord -- she couldn't remember which.
Kinne said she expressed doubts to her commanding officer, John Berry, about the authenticity of the information and was told that her job was to collect the information, not analyze it. "He said I didn't care about our mission or our country ... and I needed to stop asking questions," she said.
Kinne was written up in an incident report for having ignored the fax when it came in.
When she later read news reports confirming that an Iraqi group had fed the military intelligence false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she suspected the fax had been deliberately sent through an open satellite network so that her unit would intercept it and give it to the White House.
The only other conversations Kinne recalled with any detail involved journalists staying at a hotel in Baghdad around the time of the U.S. invasion. The journalists revealed their location in calls to U.S. family members. Kinne said she'd been monitoring the conversations of journalists at the hotel for a while, when the name of the hotel appeared on a military list of targets for bombing. Kinne said she brought the information to Berry's attention.
"I told him, you realize there are journalists staying in that hotel and we have just said that we are going to bomb it," she said. "I assumed that ... whoever made the targeting list didn't know journalists were staying there."
She didn't know if the information was passed on to anyone, but in April 2003, a U.S. tank fired on The Palestine hotel, which was serving as a base for many journalists. Two journalists were killed. Two subsequent investigations by the army and the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that the gunners had never been told journalists were at the hotel.
Two fellow linguists who had worked with Kinne at Fort Gordon disputed Kinne's story of illegal surveillance. They asked to remain anonymous because they were violating orders to not discuss their work at Fort Gordon.
Both linguists said they never violated USSID 18 and had never heard about a waiver, which one of them called implausible. They said USSID 18 was drummed into their heads and was posted everywhere at work as a constant reminder.
"There is just no breaking that rule," one linguist said. "There are a lot of other rules they can change and have changed, but they don't change that one. We don't want to have a Watergate experience."
The same linguist said if there had been any guidance from supervisors about violating USSID 18, it would have been along the lines of "if you hear something that meets this high criteria .. and there are words that are scaring you, tip it off to the head chief and they will decide if there is imminent risk. That is the only way we deviate ... So if [Kinne's] understanding is that all the rules got tossed, there is no way [that happened]."
The other linguist was just as emphatic. "[N]ever in my entire military career have I ever been told that it was okay to listen to U.S. citizens. [If] an intercept came in that had a citizen's conversation, I was never told I could report what came from Americans."
They were both angry with Kinne for discussing their work. One said if Kinne thought their mission had been illegal, she should have gone through internal processes or reported it to the FBI.
"If there was something going on, she had methods to handle it. To go outside and do it in this way indicates a need to make it fantastical. Or to get back at somebody."
The other translator noted that Kinne had conflicts with a number of people she worked with -- particularly her supervisor Berry -- and had a negative view of their team and its mission, which may have affected her perception of the operation. They described Berry as a problematic and hostile manager who didn't seem to know what he was doing. Adding to this was a pervasive sense of confusion around their mission, which was set up quickly on the fly and being run by reservists who had no experience intercepting phone calls.
The unit was overworked, understaffed and undertrained. They didn't have a standard of operation, or SOP, when they started the mission and had to cobble one together from other SOPs. Many conversations they had to translate were in dialects unfamiliar to them or languages, such as Pashtu, in which they had no proficiency.
In that confusion, there might have been times when people inadvertently listened to conversations they shouldn't have, but both linguists said the policy was clear that they were not to listen or report on U.S. citizens or allies.
"There was a lot of crazy stupidity going on, but [Berry] wasn't abusing USSID 18 because he didn't have the authority," one said.
The other linguist said, "[T]he entire way of using intelligence and the dissemination of information ... were changing, and as things were changing and we were trying to figure things out, I think there could have been a lot of gray lines that were walked instead of black and white."
Asked for an example of these gray lines, the linguist explained:
"[S]ometimes when you are searching for information ... things come across your way that are extraneous or not pertinent to what you should be doing, and if you come across that and you don't act on it, you don't report it, it's like it never happened. I can say there are times when that's possibly a gray area ... You hear a lot of things, you see a lot of things, but a lot of it is junk ... [and] some of it might be accidental. But the number one mandate [that] you are conscious of is, 'Is this something I should be listening to? Is this something I can report on?' If it doesn't meet those two criteria, you're going to discard it."
It's worth noting that Kinne began speaking about her surveillance activities only after becoming an anti-war activist, and working with groups calling for the impeachment of President Bush.
When Threat Level spoke with her last year, she was working as a research assistant for the Veterans Administration in Vermont and was becoming increasingly active politically. She had worked on get-out-the-vote campaigns for Moveon.org in November 2006, and in January 2007 began meeting with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. She participated in a rally and a sit-in at the Vermont state house and went on a bus tour with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan calling for the impeachment of President Bush.
Kinne said that after the White House announced a troop escalation in Iraq, she became very angry that the 2006 mid-term elections and subsequent changes in Congress hadn't led to pressure on the Administration to pull out of Iraq.
But it wasn't until details of the government's illegal domestic spying operation on Americans were revealed in late 2005, that she had reason to ponder her surveillance work, she said. Even then, her realization came slowly.
"I never really thought about how what we did related to [those news reports]," she said. "It took me quite a while to put the pieces together. I just figured we were one mission, and I never thought that probably military intelligence groups across the country were all being given waivers to listen to whomever they wanted."
It was another year and a half after the New York Times broke the story on the domestic surveillance program before Kinne uttered her first public words about the surveillance she had conducted on behalf of the NSA.
"I still felt like it was all classified and I wasn't supposed to talk about it," she said. "But the more I got involved in things, the more I started getting really angry that people in government were not telling the truth and that people who know what's going on [are] not speaking out. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I should tell people what I knew and hopefully that would encourage other people to say what they know."
She said she just wanted to pass the information to others who could determine whether the army and administration broke the law. To that end, she had submitted her allegations to Sen. Patrick Leahy's office (D-Vermont) in the hope that his staff would look into the matter to determine if laws had been broken. Leahy's staff sent her an e-mail indicating that they sent her letter to the Department of Defense Inspector General. But Kinne never heard anything after that.
Given her political activities and the delay in reporting the alleged abuse, the denials of her peers and the lack of corroborating evidence, Threat Level elected not to publish her claims last year. But in his upcoming book, The Shadow Factory, journalist James Bamford -- the leading civilian expert on the NSA -- reports that he confirmed the illegal surveillance with another linguist named David Murfee Faulk, who worked on the program through the Navy. One of Faulk's coworkers -- not Kinne -- asked a supervisor about USSID 18, and was ordered to disregard the directive, Bamford reports.
James Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said last year that if Kinne's information was accurate, it would be a significant advancement to what we knew about the administration's warrantless surveillance.
"Up to now the administration has said that every single phone call that we intercepted we did so because we knew there was al-Qaida on the phone," Dempsey said. "Now you're saying that, at least overseas, they were targeting Americans when they had no reason to believe an al-Qaida member was on the other line. This is the first indication that the government was targeting not terrorists but Americans overseas on less than probable cause."
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