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The Curious Vacuum Cleaner in Rm. 641A


The address is 611 Folsom Street in downtown San Francisco. To be more precise, it’s in a tightly guarded, access restricted room: Room 641A. There’s a loud sucking sound coming out of this room. It’s the sound of the United States Constitution going down a rat hole.

With its usual tactical slithering, and ice storm of lies and disinformation, the Bush Administration bamboozled Congress into a limited-term modification of the FISA statute to legalize some thoroughly illegal conduct in which it has been engaged for some time. Last weekend, Walter Pincus gave us a good summary of the tricks which were used in the pages of the Washington Post.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to amending FISA, nor to intelligence agencies being able to monitor the conversations of persons who present a reasonable prospect of threat to national security. In fact, I insist that they do just that. I am absolutely opposed to this occurring without an independent check on the surveillance activity designed to check abuse–that is, making the checks and balances concept which is at the heart of the American Constitution work. Dictatorship and one-man rule are, of course, so much easier. Admiral McConnell transmits the Bush Administration’s “trust us” message, clad in a uniform. But there is no reason to trust this administration, or any other, and no reason to trust Admiral McConnell when he faithfully transmits their message. The current and historical pattern of abuse is too clear.

At some point in the future we may, assuming America retains a democratic form of government, peal back all the lies and deception and get a good look at the massive National Surveillance State crafted by the Bush Administration. One thing’s for certain: Room 641A is a very important address on the cartography of the new National Surveillance State. We know about it thanks to a group of courageous individuals who saw what was going on, illegally, and blew the whistle. And tomorrow, as the Washington Post’s Dan Eggen reports, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel will hear a critical case in which Room 641A sits right in the crosshairs:

In 2003, Room 641A of a large telecommunications building in downtown San Francisco was filled with powerful data-mining equipment for a “special job” by the National Security Agency, according to a former AT&T technician. It was fed by fiber-optic cables that siphoned copies of e-mails and other online traffic from one of the largest Internet hubs in the United States, the former employee says in court filings.

What occurred in the room is now at the center of a pivotal legal battle in a federal appeals court over the Bush administration’s controversial spying program, including the monitoring that came to be publicly known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Tomorrow, a three-judge panel will hear arguments on whether the case, which may provide the clearest indication yet of how the spying program has worked, can go forward. So far, evidence in the case suggests a massive effort by the NSA to tap into the backbone of the Internet to retrieve millions of e-mails and other communications, which the government could sift and analyze for suspicious patterns or other signs of terrorist activity, according to court records, plaintiffs’ attorneys and technology experts.

“The scale of these deployments is . . . vastly in excess of what would be needed for any likely application or any likely combination of applications, other than surveillance,” says an affidavit filed by J. Scott Marcus, the senior Internet adviser at the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005. Marcus analyzed evidence for the plaintiffs in the case.

The Terrorist Surveillance Program, you will recall, is the program which was at the center of a storm between Attorney General Ashcroft and his deputy James Comey and the Bush White House. That clash led to Gonzales and Andy Card making their nighttime visit to Ashcroft’s hospital bed to get Ashcroft’s signature on a document. And what exactly was that document and for whom was it intended?

A number of very well positioned observers have speculated that it had something to do with Room 641A and similar installations with other telecommunications companies. The industry was insisting that the program have the Attorney General’s sign-off. So Gonzales wanted to get Ashcroft’s signature on something to show them. (Of course, if correct, this raises very serious ethics issues about Gonzales. Ashcroft had transferred authority to Comey. Gonzales knew that. So if the analysis is correct, Gonzales was attempting to scam the telecoms.)

And to all of this, the Gonzales Justice Department responds with a full-press Wizard of Oz defense. “Don’t look at the man behind that curtain,” they say. This is all super-secret national security stuff. Spencer Ackerman over at TPM Muckraker:

The Justice Department contends that the whole enterprise is a state secret, and that both the class action and a related suit — filed by an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic charity that says it has proof of being wiretapped — need to be accordingly dismissed. Klein, according to the DOJ, was a mere “line technician who . . . never had access to the ‘secret room’ he purports to describe.” (Needless to say, it’s not confirming whether 641A is anything like what Klein says it is.) Challenging the standing of the plaintiffs to sue is important: judges dismissed a similar case brought by the ACLU last year on the grounds that no one involved in the suit could prove he or she had been surveilled — the occurrence of which, of course, is itself secret.

We badly need a new Alfred Hitchcock. This stuff is far better than “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and it doesn’t involve an ounce of fiction. But keep your focus on that powerful sucking sound, and on what’s going down the tube. When you later discover what you’ve lost, you can think back to this moment and remember that you were warned.

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