To paraphrase the opening lines of a hugely popular TV show on USA Network, “My name is Chuck Hamilton and I used to be a spy.” Like the fictional Michael Westen on “Burn Notice”, I once worked for the Central Security Service (CSS), which is an actual organization. However, work at the CSS of RT (real time, i.e. real life) was not as glamorous as the CSS of TV.
We weren’t super cool bad ass secret agents and we didn’t run around undercover in cloak with dagger meeting informants, insurgents, and smugglers along with blowing things up and carrying out assassinations. We were geeks, nerds, and weirdo who frequently referred to ourselves as the “chairborne rangers”. In RT, the people at CSS are uniformed service personnel who conduct interception and analysis of foreign military, naval, and (sometimes) diplomatic communications (COMINT) and other electronic intelligence (ELINT).
Speaking of the TV show, Jeffrey Donovan, the show’s star, guested on an episode of the 1990’s excellent “Homicide: Life on the Street”, as did his co-star, Bruce Campbell. That’s completely irrelevant, but I think it’s kind o’ cool. The fact that the later stars of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe guested on back-to-back episodes of the show isn’t even in the same hemisphere.
The CSS is the official designation for the SIGINT (signals intelligence) commands of the five branches of military and naval service collectively. It’s the military component of the National Security Agency (NSA) and has the same boss, the Director of NSA, or “Daddy DIRNSA” as he (so far all directors have been men) is known in the field. His title as head of CSS is Chief of CSS, abbreviated CHCSS, but I never saw or heard that used since practically and operationally it’s all one organization. Daddy DIRNSA is also Commander of U.S. Cyber Command (CDRUSCYBERCOM), by the way, the different titles being rather redundant since the three different commands govern more or less that same personnel and material assets.
When I was with CSS, I was in the Navy working more directly for the Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU), the Navy’s SIGINT component. NAVSECGRU no longer exists, its personnel, assets, and functions now making up the Information Operations Directorate (IOD) of the Navy’s Network Warfare Command (NETWARCOM). NETWARCOM makes up most of the Tenth Fleet, also known as Fleet Cyber Command…it’s all under one roof, which is more efficient. Its field operations units that used to be known as NSG Activities (NSGA) and NSG Detachments (NSGD) are now called Naval Information Operations Commands (NIOC).
The names and places within the organizational chart are not the only things that have changed since my time with them in the late 1980’s.
In the second half of our A-school training, after our SCI (sensitive compartmented information) background checks were complete, we got “read into” the security part of the jobs we were going to be doing. Besides the codewords for different levels of classification (which we all already knew from a book I’d read and passed around; after a few days, our instructor started lectures with, “Y’all probably know this already, but it’s on the syllabus…”), we learned what we, and our superiors, could and could not do in the line of work.
The single-most important thing drilled into our heads over and over and over again, about which we were questioned on every quiz and test in some form or another, even after we had finished the security part of our training, was whether or not it was ever permitted, under any circumstances, for us as communication operators to spy on Amcits (American citizens), and if so when was it permitted.
The only answers accepted were “No” and “Never”, or “Not under any circumstances”.
Had any of us working in the field at the time been tasked to carry out an operation against the American people such as PRISM, we would have felt as if we were being made to swim in the river of excrement in Dante’s Inferno.
I know, I know. It was the height of the Cold War. Those were “more innocent times”. Things were more black and white. We didn’t have to worry about things like random acts of terror by stateless actors. Just global thermonuclear war that could have been started by a little thing like 99 red balloons being released into the air in the wrong place and the extinction of all life on the planet’s surface (except for rats and cockroaches) for at least several million years.
While I was at NSGA at Clark Air Base (NAVSECGRUACTREPPHIL), we got one of the first female air crew members in the fleet. This was when the DOD (Department of Defense) was first starting to sneak women into combat billets, like the Army MP battalion commander who led her troops in Panama in 1989. Air crew, and direct support (DIRSUP, meaning aboard ship), with NSG was considered a combat billet for two reasons.
First, even in international airspace or in international waters, there is the possibility of being attacked and killed, wounded, or captured. As happened when the Israeli Defense Forces attacked the USS Liberty in international waters on the Mediterranean Sea on 8 June 1967, when North Korea captured the USS Pueblo in the international waters on the Sea of Japan on 23 January 1968, and when the PRC caused a mid-air collision in international air space over the South China Sea that brought down a Navy EP-3 plane to Hainan Island on 1 April 2001.
Second, collecting intelligence can be considered an act of war in certain situations, like doing so from the target’s territory, which is why it’s strictly forbidden for NSA/CSS to collect signals intelligence from its HC (host country).
Incidentally, that female shipmate was never harassed or treated as anything less than equal by those with whom she worked. After all, she passed air crew training and survived SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) school, where during her week she was chosen as one of those to be water-boarded. Yes, we really do that to ourselves. And despite what some of those in Washington frothing at the mouth over visions of terror suspects in their underwear begging for their lives say, water-boarding is torture, no question.
In collecting such a huge amount of personal information on Amcits (American citizens) inside its own borders as it has been for the past six years under the PRISM program, successor to the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” which did so on a less wide basis, the USG (US government) has committed what amounts to an egregious act of war against its own people.
Like the ECHELON program, information from PRISM is shared with the SIGINT agencies of the UKUSA alliance (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Netherlands), so for Americans (and citizens of those countries) it is not only their own government which has committed an act of war against them, but five others as well. And even if that were not the case, how many people want their information in the hands of a J. Edgar Hoover?
When I was taking American Government my senior year at Tyner High School, I memorized the preamble to the Declaration of Independence for extra credit and to impress a certain Palestinian-American female classmate. Getting her attention was also the reason I campaigned in our mock presidential elections at school for Ronald Reagan…she was for Jimmy Carter.
I already knew the preamble to our nation’s constitution from that favorite series of Saturday morning PSA’s from my younger days known as Schoolhouse Rock. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Funny, but I don’t see anything there about the sanctification of “national security” above all other concerns which trumps the necessity of showing probable cause and getting a search warrant based on that probable cause. Nor can I find any exceptions either in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights to the prohibitions against indefinite detention without charge or trial or a means to challenge that detention. In fact, the Founding Fathers took the writ of habaeus corpus so seriously that they enshrined it in the main body of the Constitution.
Here’s a short parable, and if it sounds strangely familiar, just know that it’s not about any one single incident.
One weekend during football season, there’s this huge party at a frat house to which belong a number of star athletes, legacies, sons of the rich and powerful. A new female freshman shows up at the party, becomes tipsy, gets slipped a roofie, then while unconscious is raped by several of the house members. In the morning, she wakes fully dressed, with no idea of what has really happened, though she might be a little sore.
Feeling guilty for not having intervened, one of the fraternity members goes to security, which does a half-hearted investigation because of the “sensitivity” of the crime’s location. Next the whistleblower then goes to the administration, only to get stonewalled. He talks to the local police in the college town only to get referred back to campus security. Then he tries the local press, but the editors there, fearing a backlash, sit on the story. Finally, the whistleblower goes to a national publication, which breaks the story. As a result, the whistleblower is expelled from the university and arrested on charges of interfering with a police investigation.
Let’s take a moment to look at what Edward Snowden has been charged with: espionage and aiding the enemy. Snowden informed the unknowing targets of PRISM surveillance that their personal information was being collected and stored without any warrant justified in the way our constitution details. The targets have been every citizen of the U.S., and it was us he was informing. What the charges say, as well as the act of war they are meant to conceal or at least distract from, is that to the USG, “We the People of the United States” are the enemy.
You may ask, ‘What about the claims that “over fifty incidents” have been prevented because of this massive dragnet of personal information?’ Keep in mind that these are the same people, functionally speaking, who brought us the intelligence failures of 9/11, the alleged WMD’s of Saddam Hussein, and the recent bombing of the Boston Marathon. Take what they say not with a grain of salt but make like Philip J. Fry (of “Futurama”) and do so with a whole bowlful.