Feds Sued for Dodging Five Years of FOIA Requests Aimed at Uncovering True Extent of Spy Programs
‘We need Congress as a watchdog to look not only at 702 but at everything that’s been going on since 9/11,’ one analyst tells the Sun. ‘There’s no larger effort here.’
A new lawsuit filed against the National Security Agency by the Cato Institute is looking to crack open the books on surveillance programs dating back to the mid-1990s in an effort to disclose the scope of surveillance activities from the pre-9/11 era to the present day.
The suit, filed at the District Court for the District of Columbia, is a follow-up to a Freedom of Information Act request that was submitted by the Cato Institute in 2018, which the NSA has been dodging ever since.
The initial request was seeking “All internal NSA data in any form” — including emails, audits, and everything in between — regarding three programs at the agency, GrandMaster, ThinThread, and TrailBlazer.
These three programs were some of the earliest examples of mass digital surveillance programs at the NSA, starting with GrandMaster, the prototype.
GrandMaster was supposed to collect packages of data sent via the internet, compile them into sets of communications, and automatically sort them to separate noise from communications of interest. It was also supposed to encrypt communications from Americans in order to remain compliant with the Fourth Amendment.
ThinThread was a follow-up program to GrandMaster, which was designed at the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Automation Research Center. According to a PBS Frontline interview with a former senior executive at the NSA, Thomas Drake, the program was ready to go live around late 2000, early 2001.
However, ThinThread was rejected by the NSA in August of 2001. After 9/11, Mr. Drake pitched the program’s implementation to the SIGINT director, Maureen Baginski, though it was rejected again.
Enter TrailBlazer, a program that was later found to go far over budget and that the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office found to be “poorly executed and overly expensive” in a 2004 report.
TrailBlazer was pursued in order to achieve similar ends to what ThinThread had reportedly been able to accomplish but aimed to do so through contractors. However, the program was ineffective and eventually cost nearly a billion dollars compared to ThinThread, which cost around $3 million.
TrailBlazer and post-9/11 programs like it were the precursor to the modern surveillance system, which has made headlines in recent weeks for the fight over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702, which is up for renewal by the end of this year.
Section 702 has been widely criticized because it’s been repeatedly found to have been used to help law enforcement agencies engage in the unconstitutional warrantless search of data collected from American citizens — everyone from civil rights protesters to staffers at President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
A senior fellow in homeland security and civil liberties at the Cato Institute and a former CIA analyst, Patrick Eddington, tells the Sun that he hopes the suit against the NSA can be the first step in uncovering the true scope of surveillance conducted by the government on American citizens.
“The very fact that there’s never been a full accounting of these post 9/11 activities that we know impacted Americans’ rights or might have, or the programs that we know diddly squat about — that’s what scares me,” Mr. Eddington tells the Sun.
Mr. Eddington continued, saying that he hopes the lawsuit can “remind legislators that they need to take this sort of stuff seriously.” He pointed to Congressman Jamie Raskin and Congresswoman Nancy Mace as setting a good example for other members to follow.
Last year, the representatives teamed up to call on the Government Accountability Office to review the FBI’s practice of “assessments,” the surveillance of people and groups it conducts without evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“We are concerned that FBI assessments operate as de facto investigations that can be launched without a factual predicate of criminal wrongdoing,” the representatives wrote.
Mr. Eddington, however, acknowledged that Mr. Raskin and Ms. Mace are the exception in terms of how seriously they consider acting as a watchdog against surveillance.
“We need Congress as a watchdog to look not only at 702 but at everything that’s been going on since 9/11,” Mr. Eddington says. “There’s no larger effort here.”