Spy Agencies Out of Control: Infiltrating Online Games, Investigating Anti-war Journalism
December 11, 2013
Dexter Mullins / Al Jazeera America & Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Aaron Souppouris / The Verge & Ron Paul / AntiWar.com
There is little if any independent oversight of or consistency in information-gathering procedures at some of the nation's largest police departments, joint terrorism task forces and fusion centers, according to a new report published by the Brennan Center for Justice. Not satisfied to mass-tap landlines, cellphones and the Internet, since 2008, NSA's agents have also infiltrated the online gaming scene, creating avatars to search for terrorists playing on World of Warcraft and Second Life.
Report: Little Oversight at Nation's
Terrorism Watch Centers
Dexter Mullins / Al Jazeera America
(December 10, 2013) -- There is little if any independent oversight of or consistency in information-gathering procedures at some of the nation's largest police departments, joint terrorism task forces and fusion centers, according to a new report published Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice.
The report, compiled from the findings from numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals that there are large gaps in the local-federal intelligence-sharing systems that, the center says, pose a significant threat to national security and civil liberties.
"It's organized chaos. That is the state of things at the moment," said Michael Price, legal counsel at the Brennan Center and author of the report. "First is the lack of clear and consistent rules. Everyone has their own perception of what is suspicious, and what often happens is officers rely on their own biases and preconceptions."
"The other half of it is, there's nobody monitoring what these fusion centers are doing at the state and federal level," he said.
The Brennan Center calls for more oversight and a clear set of standards that all the agencies can follow. Price says having an inspector general oversee the fusion centers could be a step in the right direction.
"Strong independent oversight has got to be a part of that," he told Al Jazeera. "To the extent that police departments and local governments can create independent monitors, there need to be officials that can peer behind the curtain and see that the rules are being followed and then report back to the public. Reports about compliance, audits, are standard things that are at the heart of transparency."
The report, based on findings from 16 major police departments, 19 affiliated fusion centers and 14 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, finds that information sharing among the various intelligence and security departments is governed by "a patchwork of inconsistent rules and procedures" and independent oversight of fusion centers is "virtually nonexistent."
The vast majority of information that is collected is useless, Price said. The study points to a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that says 95 percent of suspicious-activity reports are not even investigated by the FBI, saying analysts have "too many dots" to sort through.
The CIA, NSA and Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. The FBI declined to comment.
A look at a training manual from the Los Angeles Police Department, titled "Characteristics of Terrorist Surveillance," points to some of the dots the Senate report mentions.
The manual instructs officers to look for people who stay at bus or train stops for extended periods while buses and trains come and go, who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones, who order food at restaurants and leave before the food arrives or order without eating or who are standing and stretching for an inordinate amount of time instead of jogging.
The Brennan report says these activities could either be "evidence of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or evidence of a sore hamstring." Under such wide-ranging intelligence gathering, Price says, "anyone could end up on a terrorist watch list for ordering food and not eating it."
He also says that it is unclear what happens with the 5 percent of reports that are investigated and that the information is not collected under the established standard of reasonable suspicion that has been used for years in intelligence gathering and local policing.
Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, told the Brennan Center that the information reported on the nationwide Intelligence Sharing Environment and the FBI's eGaurdian intelligence-sharing portal may not always meet the reasonable-suspicion requirement -- something Price said was the standard before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Brennan Center is not alone in its concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union has been worried about some of the same issues for years.
"The ACLU has long expressed concerns about these new counterterrorism authorities and platforms that are being used," said Mike German, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "What the public needs to understand is that this type of suspicious intelligence collection is not really effective. It sacrifices privacy for no security benefits."
Regional fusion centers in Los Angeles have determined that only 2 percent of suspicious-activity reports produced by the LAPD from 2008 to 2010 had information that was connected to possible terrorism. However, the agency kept 98 percent of the essentially useless intelligence files, purging only 66 of the nearly 2,800 records collected.
Fusion centers, spread across the country, cost up to $1.4 billion from 2003 to 2011 and routinely produce "irrelevant, useless or inappropriate" information, according to a bipartisan Senate investigation (PDF).
Price said the collection and retention of such information is a threat to civil liberties. "There's no indication that the kind of reports they're generating are contributing anything to counterterrorism," he said. "If anything, they're doing the exact opposite. By collecting large quantities of useless information, they're making it harder to identify potential terrorist threats."
Price pointed out the ineffectiveness of the procedures by looking at the Boston Marathon bombing in his report.
While Boston was not initially one of the cities the report studied, Price says it is the perfect example of why things aren't working. The Boston fusion center may have missed critical information that could have prevented the bombing had the right dots been connected regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the now deceased older brother in the bombing duo, the report says.
"We know the FBI conducted an investigation of Tamerlan. They placed him on a watch list, and three months later he was implicated in a pretty gruesome triple homicide. And it doesn't appear that the local fusion center was aware of this, or at least we don't know if they or the FBI was aware of this," Price said.
"What we do know is that at the time this was going on, the fusion center was fixated on monitoring Occupy Boston protesters," he added.
NSA Surveillance Hits the World of Warcraft
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(December 9, 2013) -- Months of leaks from Edward Snowden reveal the NSA surveillance spans the globe, with large chunks of the Internet and virtually all telephone calls under their purview. Apparently that wasn't quite enough.
With the post-9/11 spending frenzy leaving them with hordes of agents with apparently nothing better to do, the NSA sent them, en masse, into the World of Warcraft.
An online game that at its peak enjoyed well over 10 million subscribers worldwide, Blizzard's World of Warcraft was dubbed an "opportunity" by NSA analysts, who figured terrorists were probably playing it too, and set a slew of agents to work playing the game on that assumption.
The NSA document claims al-Qaeda terrorist target selectors are associated with World of Warcraft, but there's no evidence that the surveillance ever accomplished anything, and they had so many NSA players that the agency had to set up a whole group just to make sure the players weren't wasting time spying on each other.
Blizzard issued rather a tame statement on the scandal, saying they were never informed of the surveillance and didn't know it was going on. Players within the game took a different tack, noting that several of the characters within the game universe have been telling players for years that they believe there are "spies everywhere." It turns out they were right.
Why Is the FBI Investigating Anti-war Website?
Ron Paul / AntiWar.com
(December 10, 2013) -- What in heck is the Federal Bureau of Investigation doing "investigating" Antiwar.com? That's what Ron Paul wants to know.
A combination of malevolence and incompetence -- that's the conclusion he draws in this exclusive interview with the Ron Paul Channel, unlocked here for our readers.
When "law enforcement" spies on and harasses Americans engaged in Constitutionally protected non-violent activities -- it's called journalism -- there's something seriously wrong with our system, says Paul.
FBI Monitors Prominent Anti-War Website
Full video made available from The Ron Paul Channel. Click here.
NSA Spied on 'World of Warcraft' and Xbox Live Online Games
Aaron Souppouris / The Verge
(December 9, 2013) -- American and British intelligence agencies have "infiltrated" online games including World of Warcraft and Second Life. That's according to documents dating back to 2008, leaked by Edward Snowden and reported on by The Guardian, ProPublica, and The New York Times.
Spies from multiple American and British agencies reportedly created characters to snoop on gamers, fearing that terrorists could blend in with legitimate players and use the anonymity and cover MMOPRGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) offer to communicate, transfer funds, or plan attacks.
The documents show that spies from both the CIA and FBI were active in Second Life, and a "deconfliction" group was set up to avoid agents spying on one another.
In addition to virtually wandering the World of Warcraft, agencies also used open-source packet-sniffing software to filter out data using parsing scripts provided by the UK's GCHQ.
"These logs are now being forwarded to GCHQ for additional analysis, target development, and network knowledge enrichment," reads the leaked document. It continues to note that GCHQ has uncovered potential Signals Intelligence by "identifying accounts, characters, and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation, and arms dealing."
All three publications note that a GCHQ document, also dating back to 2008, claims the agency has "successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live." It's important to note these documents are all five years old now, and it's not clear if the agencies still have access to any of the networks mentioned in the reports.
The documents also show mobile gaming was a potential target. The document predates the iPhone's App Store and the prolific rise of smartphone games, and it appears agencies were biding their time, waiting for the mobile gaming market to become more popular before considering action.
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