Does the CIAs Dark Past Foretell Current Data Abuse?

News Analysis: With the CIA's release of reports on 25 years of illegal exploits, data privacy advocates now have a lengthy record of abuses to justify restraining governments' access to personal data.

With the CIAs June 26 release of documents detailing 25 years of illegal exploits, data privacy advocates now have a book-length record of misdeeds—including examples of data abuse such as wiretapping—to back up their arguments that personal data is better off when kept out of the hands of an unsupervised government or law enforcement agency.

At the behest of a Freedom of Information request filed 15 years ago by the National Security Archive, the CIA released copies of memos detailing not only wiretapping but also domestic surveillance; assassination plots; human experimentation; the two-year imprisonment and interrogation of Soviet defector Yuriy Nosenko, in what could be considered kidnapping; the training of foreign police in bomb-making and sabotage; and more.

The report, titled "The CIAs Family Jewels," was commissioned by then-CIA director James Schlesinger following the discovery that Watergate burglars E. Howard Hunt and James McCord—both veteran CIA officers—had cooperation from the Agency as they carried out "dirty tricks" for President Nixon. The report can be downloaded here in full or in sections.

The difference between government surveillance then and now was summed up in a June 28 cartoon by Dan Wasserman on the Boston Globes editorial page: A man incredulously asks a CIA representative, "You wiretapped and spied on Americans?!"

"That was over 50 years ago—another era! Everything has changed since then," the CIA man answers. "Nowadays, its all digital."

Indeed, the technology available for the government to misuse during the period covered in the report—March 1959 to May 1973—was primitive. A summary of CIA acts of questionable legality prepared during that time includes testing of electronic equipment on U.S. telephone circuits; polygraph experiments with the San Mateo, Calif., sheriff; and wiretapping of two syndicated columnists, Robert Allen and Paul Scott.

Even as readers absorb the magnitude of 50-year-old abuses of power detailed in the report, a White House panel on June 27 issued subpoenas to the Bush administration for documents relating to its current surveillance program. The Bush administrations spying setup has had far more avenues of technology available to its agents: According to The New York Times, which broke the news (requires registration) about the Bush administrations spying program in December 2005, the National Security Agency monitored international telephone calls and international e-mail of hundreds or even thousands of people inside the United States from 2002 until at least 2005 as it tried to track down links to Al Qaeda.

(Interestingly enough, the Times having broken the current spying program carried out by the Bush administration mirrors the papers earlier breaking of the story about the CIAs illegal domestic operations in a Dec. 22, 1974, article by Seymour Hersh—the same article that eventually lead to the public release of "The Family Jewels.")

Acts conducted under the current program, which was kicked off by a presidential mandate signed a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are in violation of the NSAs charter: to collect and analyze foreign communications in defense of the United States.

To overcome the difficulties inherent in snooping on modern fiber-optic telephone cables, the NSA has reportedly set up an internal network to achieve its monitoring goals, including junction point hubs.

James Bamford, an expert on intelligence gathering and author of several books on the NSA, including "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of Americas Intelligence Agencies, said during a keynote at the June Gartner IT Security Summit: "The NSA began going to AT&T and began building secret rooms. A cable from overseas would terminate in this room. They would convert it to usable signals to be sent out around the country" to NSA agents. "They had a big splitter put on the cable, so when it came in you built a mirror copy of it. The mirror copy goes to a secret room that only two people had access to," Bamford said.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read more about the NSAs ongoing eavesdropping.

That activity began after 9/11 and continued until 2003, he said, only coming to light after a whistleblower at AT&T publicized photos and internal blueprints of the setup. The whistleblower was a retired communications technician, Mark Klein, who has joined the Electronic Frontier Federation in a lawsuit against AT&T. The lawsuit charges that the telecommunications giant violated the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with the NSA "in its massive, illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans communications."

Nobody has charged the Bush administration with trying to poison foreign leaders à la the CIAs former methods, but privacy advocates point to modern government-sanctioned programs—the EU data retention laws and the Patriot Act in the United States, for example—as being tools that could be used for snooping similar to the CIA in its darkest days.

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