Inside Operation Highlander: the NSA’s Wiretapping of Americans Abroad

By | October 12, 2008

Inside 2A top secret NSA wiretapping facility in Georgia accused of spying on Americans illegally was hastily staffed with inexperienced reservists in the months following September 11, where they worked under conflicting orders and with little supervision, according to three former workers at the spy complex. …

Now a second former Arabic linguist with the Navy has corroborated her claims to ABC, and to NSA expert James Bamford, who includes the story in his upcoming book Shadow Factory.

If the allegations are true, it would seem to indicate that warrantless spying of Americans approved by President Bush following 9/11 expanded rapidly beyond U.S. borders to citizens overseas, notwithstanding United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, or USSID 18 — an NSA rule that bars overseas surveillance of Americans without authorization and probable cause.

… At first, Kinne didn’t think they were doing anything wrong because in mid-2002, several months after the surveillance began, a supervisor told her group of linguists and analysts that they had received a “waiver” that allowed them to intercept and listen to the conversations of Americans. The waiver also gave them permission to spy on British, Canadian and Australian citizens Kinne said.

Inside 2Under federal law, such a waiver would usually require special national security circumstances –- such as an imminent threat of death or attack. But Kinne said the people whose conversations she targeted didn’t discuss information of a military or terrorist nature, and the interceptions occurred over the entire Middle East –- not just in war zones. The surveillance was still going on when Kinne left active reserve duty in August 2003. …

Kinne filed several reports about the aid workers and gave their location to her supervisor, believing that U.S. military personnel might help the aid workers, or at least refrain from shooting their vehicle. But while she was monitoring the workers, a fax arrived, several pages long and written in Arabic. Even though the fax was from a phone number with a higher priority, Kinne ignored it because she felt the lives of the aid workers were more important.

When another worker later read the fax and realized its significance, all of the workers were instructed to drop everything to translate it. Kinne said the fax purported to describe the location of chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

As soon as her group completed the translation, she said it was sent to the White House -– the only time information was sent directly in this manner.

After the information was on its way, Kinne looked at the source of the document and began to doubt its authenticity. She said it came from the Iraqi National Congress or Iraqi National Accord — she couldn’t remember which.

Kinne said she expressed doubts to her commanding officer, John Berry, about the authenticity of the information and was told that her job was to collect the information, not analyze it. “He said I didn’t care about our mission or our country … and I needed to stop asking questions,” she said.

Kinne was written up in an incident report for having ignored the fax when it came in.

When she later read news reports confirming that an Iraqi group had fed the military intelligence false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she suspected the fax had been deliberately sent through an open satellite network so that her unit would intercept it and give it to the White House.

The only other conversations Kinne recalled with any detail involved journalists staying at a hotel in Baghdad around the time of the U.S. invasion. The journalists revealed their location in calls to U.S. family members. Kinne said she’d been monitoring the conversations of journalists at the hotel for a while, when the name of the hotel appeared on a military list of targets for bombing. Kinne said she brought the information to Berry’s attention.

“I told him, you realize there are journalists staying in that hotel and we have just said that we are going to bomb it,” she said. “I assumed that … whoever made the targeting list didn’t know journalists were staying there.”

She didn’t know if the information was passed on to anyone, but in April 2003, a U.S. tank fired on The Palestine hotel, which was serving as a base for many journalists. Two journalists were killed. Two subsequent investigations by the army and the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that the gunners had never been told journalists were at the hotel. … – wired

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