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Profile: Ira Winkler
Ira Winkler was a participant or observer in the following events:
Ira Winkler. [Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]Former NSA analyst Ira Winkler, author of the 2005 book Spies Among Us, writes of his disgust with the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, saying that because it is warrantless, it is illegal. He argues the program violates both the NSA’s rules of engagement and its long-term missions.
Warrantless Surveillance is Illegal - Securing warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is easily done, Winkler says: “FISA blocks no legitimate acquisition of knowledge. It doesn’t even slow the process down.” The problem, Winkler says, is that the program is so large that securing FISA warrants for every communication the NSA monitors “would [take] an army of lawyers to get all the warrants they’d need to be in compliance with FISA.” However: “[T]he law is the law. No president has the right to pick and choose which laws they find convenient to follow.” President Bush could have asked Congress to amend the FISA laws: “After all, after 9/11 Congress passed a wide variety of laws (without, for the most part, reading them) that were supposed to prevent another attack. They could have easily slipped something modifying FISA into all of that legislation. They did not, though recent revelations about this administration’s use of signing statements may indicate that they simply didn’t want to raise the possibility of questions.” Merely ignoring FISA “is illegal,” Winkler writes.
Weakens National Security - Another issue is national security. Not obtaining warrants actually weakens natural security, he argues, “since the process of obtaining the warrants has an effect on quality control.” For example: “To date, FBI agents have been sent out to do thousands of investigations based on this warrantless wiretapping. None of those investigations turned up a legitimate lead. I have spoken to about a dozen agents, and they all roll their eyes and indicate disgust with the man-years of wasted effort being put into physically examining NSA ‘leads.’ This scattershot attempt at data mining drags FBI agents away from real investigations, while destroying the NSA’s credibility in the eyes of law enforcement and the public in general. That loss of credibility makes the NSA the agency that cried wolf—and after so many false leads, should they provide something useful, the data will be looked at skeptically and perhaps given lower priority by law enforcement than it would otherwise have been given.” Winkler says the NSA’s claim that it does not retain any personal information is ludicrous. “Frankly, you have to be a complete moron to believe that,” he writes. “It is trivial to narrow down access to a phone number to just a few members of a household, if not in fact to exactly one person.”
Extortion - And the warrantless surveillance is not the only illegal action taken by the government. If the government did threaten one telecom firm, Qwest, for not cooperating (see February 2001), “[t]hat’s extortion—another crime.” Winkler writes that both Congress and the American people must demand answers, or the White House and the NSA will continue to usurp our freedom under the cloak of protecting freedoms.
Arguments For Program are Specious - Winkler says the arguments for the program that he hears are groundless. He hears three main threads:
“I have nothing to worry about so I don’t care if they investigate me.” Winkler points out that plenty of people have been investigated and incarcerated in the US and abroad without doing anything wrong: “I believe that Saddam Hussein would cheerfully agree with the tired allegation that if you did nothing wrong, you shouldn’t mind the government looking at your calls. I think Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and the Chinese government would also agree with that line of thought. Is this the company we consent to keep in the name of safety?”
“[W]e need to do everything we can to protect ourselves.” Protecting ourselves, Winkler argues, means letting law enforcement work to protect US citizens against real, ongoing crimes. The government is “watching for dragons while very real snakes multiply freely in our midst.”
“[T]he NSA isn’t listening to the content of the calls, so there’s no harm.” Aside from the fact that Winkler believes the NSA is lying about not listening to the calls themselves, he says: “[The NSA] doesn’t need to hear your chatter to invade your privacy. By simply tying numbers together—an intelligence discipline of traffic analysis—I assure you I can put together a portrait of your life. I’ll know your friends, your hobbies, where your children go to school, if you’re having an affair, whether you plan to take a trip and even when you’re awake or asleep. Give me a list of whom you’re calling and I can tell most of the critical things I need to know about you.” The NSA is made up of mostly “good and honest people,” but it has “more than its share of bitter, vindictive mid- and senior-level bureaucrats. I would not trust my personal information with these people, since I have personally seen them use internal information against their enemies.” Winkler reminds his readers that the Bush administration deliberately outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson because her husband dared debunk an administration claim about Iraq (see November 20, 2007), and tried to undermine the credibility of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke when he spoke out against the administration (see March 24, 2004). The NSA could easily provide the administration with damaging information about other administration enemies.
'Against Everything I Was Taught' - “NSA domestic spying is against everything I was ever taught working at the NSA,” Winkler writes. “I might be more for it if there was any credible evidence that this somehow provides useful information that couldn’t otherwise be had. However, the domestic spying program has gotten so massive that the well-established process of getting a warrant cannot be followed—and quantity most certainly doesn’t translate to quality. Quite the opposite.” The terrorists number in the hundreds, Winkler writes, but “the NSA is collecting data on hundreds of millions of people who are clearly not the enemy. These numbers speak for themselves.” [Computerworld, 5/16/2006]
Entity Tags: Qwest, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ira Winkler, National Security Agency, Valerie Plame Wilson, Saddam Hussein, Richard A. Clarke, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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