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Hullabaloo


Monday, May 19, 2008

 
Main Core

by digby

I have heard some rumbling from readers lately that the blogosphere's obsession with illegal spying and torture and the like is somehow an "elitist" concern that will be detrimental to winning elections. I don't know if that's true, but frankly, I don't much care. Somebody has to care about civil liberties and the constitution or the whole house of cards falls in. If that makes me an elitist, so be it.

For instance, get a load of this article today, from Radar magazine. It recounts the dramatic testimony of James Comey where he revealed that Cheney's cabal was so intent upon *something* so heinous that even strict law 'n order types like him couldn't stomach it. It posits that the program everyone was so concerned about was actually something different than what we may have assumed:

What was the mysterious program that had so alarmed Comey? Political blogs buzzed for weeks with speculation. Though Comey testified that the program was subsequently readjusted to satisfy his concerns, one can't help wondering whether the unspecified alteration would satisfy constitutional experts, or even average citizens. Faced with push-back from his bosses at the White House, did he simply relent and accept a token concession? Two months after Comey's testimony to Congress, the New York Times reported a tantalizing detail: The program that prompted him "to threaten resignation involved computer searches through massive electronic databases." The larger mystery remained intact, however. "It is not known precisely why searching the databases, or data mining, raised such a furious legal debate," the article conceded.

Another clue came from a rather unexpected source: President Bush himself. Addressing the nation from the Oval Office in 2005 after the first disclosures of the NSA's warrantless electronic surveillance became public, Bush insisted that the spying program in question was reviewed "every 45 days" as part of planning to assess threats to "the continuity of our government."

Few Americans—professional journalists included—know anything about so-called Continuity of Government (COG) programs, so it's no surprise that the president's passing reference received almost no attention. COG resides in a nebulous legal realm, encompassing national emergency plans that would trigger the takeover of the country by extra-constitutional forces—and effectively suspend the republic. In short, it's a road map for martial law.

While Comey, who left the Department of Justice in 2005, has steadfastly refused to comment further on the matter, a number of former government employees and intelligence sources with independent knowledge of domestic surveillance operations claim the program that caused the flap between Comey and the White House was related to a database of Americans who might be considered potential threats in the event of a national emergency. Sources familiar with the program say that the government's data gathering has been overzealous and probably conducted in violation of federal law and the protection from unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, "There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived 'enemies of the state' almost instantaneously." He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core. One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention.
I could be wrong, but I would guess offhand that liberal bloggers and their readers might be among them:
Another well-informed source—a former military operative regularly briefed by members of the intelligence community—says this particular program has roots going back at least to the 1980s and was set up with help from the Defense Intelligence Agency. He has been told that the program utilizes software that makes predictive judgments of targets' behavior and tracks their circle of associations with "social network analysis" and artificial intelligence modeling tools.


"The more data you have on a particular target, the better [the software] can predict what the target will do, where the target will go, who it will turn to for help," he says. "Main Core is the table of contents for all the illegal information that the U.S. government has [compiled] on specific targets." An intelligence expert who has been briefed by high-level contacts in the Department of Homeland Security confirms that a database of this sort exists, but adds that "it is less a mega-database than a way to search numerous other agency databases at the same time."

[...]

"We're at the edge of a cliff," says Bruce Fein, a top justice official in the Reagan administration. "To a national emergency planner, everybody looks like a danger to stability"The following information seems to be fair game for collection without a warrant: the e-mail addresses you send to and receive from, and the subject lines of those messages; the phone numbers you dial, the numbers that dial in to your line, and the durations of the calls; the Internet sites you visit and the keywords in your Web searches; the destinations of the airline tickets you buy; the amounts and locations of your ATM withdrawals; and the goods and services you purchase on credit cards. All of this information is archived on government supercomputers and, according to sources, also fed into the Main Core database.

Main Core also allegedly draws on four smaller databases that, in turn, cull from federal, state, and local "intelligence" reports; print and broadcast media; financial records; "commercial databases"; and unidentified "private sector entities." Additional information comes from a database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which generates watch lists from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for use by airlines, law enforcement, and border posts. According to the Washington Post, the Terrorist Identities list has quadrupled in size between 2003 and 2007 to include about 435,000 names. The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center border crossing list, which listed 755,000 persons as of fall 2007, grows by 200,000 names a year. A former NSA officer tells Radar that the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, using an electronic-funds transfer surveillance program, also contributes data to Main Core, as does a Pentagon program that was created in 2002 to monitor antiwar protesters and environmental activists such as Greenpeace.
Read the whole article. It goes into the long history of these kinds of abuses by the US Government right up to 9/11. We don't know very much about what they did after that, but it's completely reasonable to assume that it was far beyond anything done before.

I don't know about you, but I sort of go with the assumption that there will be another terrorist attack on US soil at some point. I don't know if it will be Islamic or homegrown. (After all we've had big attacks from both in the last 15 years.) The difference now is that we have a big new police apparatus built up during the Bush years and an entire propaganda machine organized around the idea that the boogeyman is trying to kill us all in our beds. It's not a stretch to think that under pressure, any government could, (*ahem*) overreach just a tad and decide that certain political undesirables need to be dealt with. If they've built the capability, there is every chance they will use it. It's how these things work.

Meanwhile, some dillweed federal bureaucrat can rifle through all of your personal information whenever he feels like it.

Feeling safer?


Update: Emptywheel weighs in on this. Like her, I don't know if this is credible, but from what we know it certainly doesn't sound beyond the realm of possibility.