"We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state."

So said NSA whistleblower William Binney, holding his thumb and forefinger close together.

Binney should know what he is talking about. For some 40 years, he worked with the giant NSA and was instrumental in automating its worldwide eavesdropping network.  He told James Bamford why he left the NSA in 2001:

“When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.”

Bamford is another person who should know what he is talking about. He has done more than any other individual to plumb the NSA’s secret world, and make “No Such Agency” visible to the public through his books Puzzle Palace (1982), Body of Secrets (2002) and Shadow Factory (2008).

NSA head General Keith Alexander may not know the name of the man who has done more than any other to force the NSA into the light, referring to him during recent questioning by Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) as “Bashford” instead of “Bamford.” 

But the General, who directs not just the NSA but Cyber Command, certainly knows how to put up a good front. In his terse responses to Rep. Johnson’s questions about whether the NSA is carrying out warrantless surveillance of domestic communications, General Alexander positioned himself as head of a deeply misunderstood agency that adheres to the letter of the law.

That law – embodied in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 which extended immunity to the major telecoms for their participation in the NSA warrantless surveillance program initiated by the Bush Administration – requires a warrant to be obtained from the secret FISA court before surveillance can be carried out on the communications of Americans within the country if they are suspected of involvement in espionage or terrorism. However, if one end of a communication is “believed to be” outside the country there is no protection from warrantless dragnet surveillance.

Who knows whether the domestic provisions of the FISA Amendments Act are actually being adhered to?  Congress apparently doesn’t. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have asked for Congress to receive unclassified information about how FISA Amendments Act powers are actually being used before it has to vote to renew those powers in late 2012.

If General Alexander was being totally truthful in his Congressional testimony, then maybe we are still in a land where laws are not just made, but applied. But if the Wired article by James Bamford that informed Rep. Johnson’s questions to the NSA director has it right, we may already have crossed the threshold into Binney’s totalitarian world. 

In “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),”  Bamford takes us to Bluffdale, Utah, where the NSA is building a $2 billion one million square foot “Utah Data Center” that is due to be operational by September 2013. The electricity to supply this behemoth will cost the US taxpayer some $40 million a year.

In Bluffdale, Utah, the NSA will reach its apotheosis. The vast new campus will be the “realization of the total information awareness program,” complete with a code-breaking capacity, which will “intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as the zap down from satellites and zip through underground and undersea cables of international, foreign and domestic networks.”

As Bamford was told by one unnamed official, “Everybody’s a target, everybody with communications is a target.”

How did Bamford respond to General Alexander’s claim that the NSA was playing totally by the rules? “The NSA has constantly denied that they’re doing things, and then it turns out they are doing these things.”

Or perhaps we really are insulated from the voracious appetite of the NSA – until September 2013.

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