‘Panic made us vulnerable’: how 9/11 made the US surveillance state – and the Americans who fought back

LAn the morning of 11 septiembre 2001, an 18-year-old was driving his white Honda Civic on the way to work as a freelance web designer. It was a beautiful day under a sparkling blue sky, and as he sped down Maryland’s Route 32 with the window down and radio blasting, the teenager was sure it was going to be a lucky day.

Soon after 8.46am the radio cut to news that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. At 9.03am, by now at his desk, he was stunned to hear that a second plane had crashed into the other tower, followed half an hour later by similar catastrophe at the Pentagon in Washington.

He leapt back into his car and screeched into reverse, only to find himself stuck in gridlocked traffic sandwiched between hundreds of other vehicles. He was stuck outside the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA), the US intelligence body that runs one of the largest surveillance operations in the world.

The road was jammed with personnel streaming out of the NSA building following an order to evacuate. The air was thick with the sound of yelling, cellphones ringing, car engines revving vainly in the stationary traffic.

The surreal spectacle of thousands of NSA intelligence agents abandoning their posts after the worst terrorist attack on the US, only to be bogged down in gridlock, made a deep impression on the teenager, Edward Snowden. As did 9/11 sí mismo, which radically changed the course of his life.

In its wake, Snowden became caught up in the surge of patriotism that swept the nation. Inspired to play his part, he joined the army, entered the intelligence community, and some 12 years after 9/11 found himself back at the same NSA where he had ground to a halt on that fateful day.

The attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon had brought Snowden deep into the heart of America’s secretive surveillance operations. But in the process it had given him access to highly classified databases that revealed to him a massive secret world, a sort of hidden state-within-the-state that had been created in the wake of 9/11.

Snowden would go on to carry out the largest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history. It would expose one of the great legacies of 9/11 – the rise of the ubiquitous US surveillance state.

“Panic made us politically vulnerable,” Snowden told the Guardian as he ruminated on the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11. “That vulnerability was exploited by our own government to entitle itself to radically expanded powers that had for decades been out of reach.”

Snowden said that upon reflection the explosion of domestic spying post-9/11 should have been anticipated. “We should have known what was to come and, looking back at the public record, I think that on an intellectual level many of us did know. But political and media elites relentlessly repeated that the choice here was obvious: a guarantee of life or a certainty of death.”

That teenager on 9/11 is now an exile from his own country, charged under the Espionage Act for having revealed the US government’s mass espionage on its own people. The way he sees it 20 años después, the false claim that expanding state power was necessary to avoid certain death from further terrorist atrocities has led to decades of public indifference.

“With that framing, who could care whether or not the gloves came off the machinery of state? We are only now beginning to care again – to care collectively – because we sit at the bottom of a 20-year hole carved by our neglect.”

It happened in the blink of an eye. Within hours of the fourth plane crashing into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, George Bush’s White House and intelligence chiefs had begun to lay the foundations of the mass surveillance state.

los Patriot Act, which swatted away longstanding rules preventing the state from monitoring US citizens without “probable cause”, was passed in a lightning-fast 45 dias. The legislation became law with minimal debate or opposition in Congress, granting domestic law enforcement agencies sweeping new powers.

It allowed the government to track the online behavior of Americans while making it much easier to acquire a warrant. It gave the green light for the FBI and CIA to carry out “roving wiretaps” where agents could follow communications trails between phones and computers.

It eviscerated the firewall that had been in place since the 1970s shielding US citizens from foreign surveillance. And it greatly boosted the power of the FBI to obtain personal customer records of Americans from phone companies, banks and internet providers without court approval through so-called National Security Letters.

If the Patriot Act was produced in a flash, behind the scenes secret systems for mass surveillance were being built at even greater speed. One of the most audacious plans was drafted by nightfall on the day of 11 September itself.

The plan, ominously titled “Total information awareness”, was the brainchild of John Poindexter, a disgraced former naval officer who had been Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and a key figure in the Iran-contra scandal. TIA, Poindexter blustered, would act as an early-warning alarm for future 9/11s by gathering up the digital data of all Americans – innocent or guilty – and using it to search for patterns of terrorist activity.

No warrants would be sought. They would just do it, irrespective of laws or constitutional niceties.

“We must put introduction of new technology on a wartime basis,” Poindexter said. Weeks later he managed to sell the idea to the Pentagon in return for a $200m budget.

The NSA wasn’t far behind. The agency was busy devising Stellar Wind, its warrantless surveillance system. It sought to identify terrorist links by analysing the metadata drawn from the emails, telephone calls and internet activity of huge numbers of Americans.

The Snowden documents presentado that by 14 September – just three days after the attacks – the then director of the NSA, Michael Hayden, had taken a “tactical decision” to begin snooping on the digital communications of people based in the US. From now on, the NSA granted itself the power to surveil any American on US soil who was in digital contact with a foreign country where terrorism was known to exist – no warrant needed.

This was a seismic shift. It meant that the nation’s most powerful eavesdropping agency had ascribed to itself, without consulting Congress or the courts, the ability to listen in to the communications of Americans in a way that violated constitutional rights and laws. En 4 octubre 2001 the White House granted permission, again in secret and without consultation, for the NSA to turn its spotlight on to US citizens in what became known as the President’s Surveillance Program.

“They essentially claimed wartime authority to engage in domestic surveillance that is criminal under statutory law,” said Ben Wizner, Snowden’s lawyer, who works on surveillance at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

How could the spymasters have moved to put in place complex systems of mass surveillance just hours and days after 9/11? There is only one answer, many observers believe.

“They had it all ready,” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which defends civil liberties in the digital space. “This is what the NSA had long wanted – to ‘sit on the wire’, to watch all internet traffic and pick out whatever they chose. Now they finally had the crisis they needed to make it happen.”

By the 10th anniversary of 9/11, an entire nation within the nation had arisen dedicated to keeping the American people nominally safe by placing everybody under observation. The Washington Post called it a “Top Secret America hidden from public view”.

The sprawling surveillance infrastructure had proliferated to the extent that nobody – not even top intelligence officials – knew how much it cost or how many it employed. The Post’s best estimate in July 2010 was that it spanned 10,000 locations across the US.

The scale of growth can be glimpsed by looking at some of the public elements. The number of National Security Letters granted each year increased more than fourfold between 2000 y 2003, peaking at almost 60,000 the following year. Por 2008 casi 20,000 people were being targeted under its remit.

The intelligence budget grew from a little over $40bn a year in the late 1990s to almost $100bn by 2010, remaining $80bn to this day.

When Wizner looks back on the past 20 years he is struck not just by this explosion in surveillance but also by the failure of governance that enabled it. Key institutions like the secret foreign intelligence surveillance court, which is supposed to provide legal oversight, genuflected in front of the NSA.

“This is a story about checks and balances failing,” Wizner said. “The courts deferred to the expertise and secrecy claims of the executive, Congress failed to hold the intelligence agencies accountable.”

Even the media fell short of holding power to account. When in 2005 los New York Times revealed the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, the newspaper admitted that it had sat on the story for a year at the behest of the White House.

The LA Times spiked a story brought to it by a whistleblower who revealed that the telecom company AT&T had handed over all its internet traffic to the NSA. The paper had been lobbied by Hayden and the then director of national intelligence, John Negroponte.

Traditional oversight did have some successes. Ron Wyden, a US senator for Oregon, managed to have Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness program shut down en 2003, after an intern in his office stumbled across documents describing the operation.

“That was one of our first wins – it would have been the biggest spying operation in history,” Wyden said. (Three years later it was revelado that elements of the program had secretly been transferred from the Pentagon to the NSA.)

Wyden, a longstanding member of the Senate select committee on intelligence, has been at the forefront of efforts to force sunlight into the world of secret surveillance. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was approaching he issued his famous warning on the Senate floor, telling the American people that when they found out how the government had interpreted the Patriot Act “they will be stunned and they will be angry”.

In another legendary moment two years later, he posed a direct question to the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA was collecting data on hundreds of millions of Americans. "No, sir," Clapper lied.

Wyden told the Guardian that the exchange showed how far the government had allowed itself to slide in terms of basic American values. “James Clapper lied to the American people and he lied to the committee. It wasn’t the only time they lied – they lied several times over the years, which is why I finally said I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask the question I did in public.”

It is a paradox of Wyden’s attempts to wrench surveillance into the open that despite his efforts the full truth about the massive dragnet of all Americans’ digital communications remained concealed. As a member of the committee, the senator was briefed in secret about the warrantless eavesdropping but was constrained by what he has called the “cumbersome and unwieldy” restrictions on his public remarks.

The Guardian asked Wyden whether he thought, with the benefit of hindsight over these past 20 años, that Congress could have done more to check the intelligence agencies.

“You look back, and the answer is: Por supuesto. You keep pushing the rock up the hill and you have wins, and there are times when you wish there had been stronger support for reform.”

Before Edward Snowden there was Mark Klein. He was the whistleblower who exposed the AT&T story that the LA Times declined to publish. Klein was a technician assigned to the internet room of AT&T’s Folsom Street building in San Francisco through which colossal quantities of data passed every hour. Fue 2004 and unbeknown to the public the telecoms company had been bending over backwards since days after 9/11 to help the US government spy on its own people.

As Klein went about routine maintenance, his eye was drawn to a splitter cabinet inside the room. It was dividing the light beam carrying the data into two separate signals, and passing one of them – an exact copy of the other – down to the floor below.

Klein’s curiosity intensified when he tried to follow the signal and found that the lower room was locked behind a door marked 641A. Nobody was allowed in without special authorization from the NSA.

When Klein obtained internal engineering documents outlining the flow of data through the splitter cabinet down to the secret room, his suspicions were confirmed. The NSA was copying and collecting everybody’s information carried not only by AT&T but also by 16 other internet providers who shared the pipeline.

“I was horrified and astonished. It was like a police state, sweeping up everybody’s information blindly and allowing agents to go through it at their leisure.”

Klein’s discovery was made public by Wired magazine in 2006. The documents he obtained went on to form the basis of a major lawsuit launched by the EFF, though in 2008 Congress passed a law absolving AT&T and other phone companies from any legal liability for collaborating with the spy chiefs.

Mark Klein, Thomas Tamm, Thomas Drake, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Edward Loomis, Diane Roark – the list of individuals who, for a variety of motives, provided critical information to investigative journalists seeking to expose the surveillance state is long and impressive. Without them, given the failure of checks and balances, we might still be in the dark today.

“Everything we know about mass surveillance we know not because of our government institutions but despite them,” Wizner said. “We know because of courageous sources and journalists who pried those stories out into the light.”

And then there was Snowden. En 6 junio 2013 – almost 12 years after 9/11 – the first incendiary story exposing the NSA’s dragnet of the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers was published by the Guardian. The next day the paper reported on Prism, a system for sucking up data from US internet giants including Google and Facebook.

The lid on the secret US surveillance state had finally been lifted. One of the documents Snowden disclosed neatly encapsulated the NSA’s posture: “Sniff It All, Know It All, Collect It All, Process It All, Exploit It All, Partner It All.”

Snowden has an even more vivid way of summing up the public consequences of the closed world he had bust open. In his memoir Permanent Record he writes: “All of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d be forced to live the rest of our lives under omniscient parental supervision.”

It is tempting to think of the mass surveillance put in place post-9/11 as a great leveler – after all, the NSA did grab the metadata of all Americans irrespective of race, class or religion. But to suggest that 9/11 gave birth to a new equality of snooping under the government’s all-seeing eye would be a travesty.

Surveillance has always fallen unevenly in the US, stretching back to the days when slaves were required to carry lanterns at night so they could be followed. Después 9/11 it was the turn of Muslims.

“The Patriot Act was the stepping stone for what became open season on American Muslims,” said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There were no rules. The government just said ‘Let’s go after Muslims.’”

Antes 9/11 Awad had been invited to sit on White House advisory committees. Después 9/11 he and his family would routinely be stopped and searched at airports and treated like criminals. “We became the enemy," él dijo.

For years Awad was puzzled by the hostile stories in the press containing personal details, the banks that refused to do business with him. He had to wait until Snowden to make sense of what was happening.

An investigation by the Intercept based on the Snowden files showed that Awad had been placed on a top-secret list of 7,485 gente, many foreigners but also including an unknown number of Americans, whose emails were being monitored by the NSA and FBI. They included other high-profile Muslim Americans including a former Republican candidate, a lawyer and university professors.

“When Snowden let us know that I was on the list I realized the government had access to my private emails and were sharing them with Congress and leaking them to the media,” Awad said.

“I felt invaded by my own government, punished for leading a civil rights organization. If people like me in positions of influence were treated like this, what about the average Muslim?"

Asad Dandia was born and raised in Brooklyn. He was eight years-old on 9/11 and a teenager when his troubles started. As a religiously observant Muslim, he had founded with friends a food distribution charity offering help to struggling families from his community.

En marzo 2012 he was contacted through Facebook by a stranger named Shamiur Rahman who said he wanted to volunteer for a spiritually grounded organization like his. Rahman said he had been through a rough patch himself and now wanted to help others.

Dandia welcomed Rahman in. “He quickly grew close to me and to my circles," él dijo. “He met my family, he ate my mother’s food, he slept over one night. We shared many intimate moments of emotional and spiritual reflection.”

At times Rahman behaved strangely. Whenever Dandia introduced him to anybody the first thing he would do would be to ask for their phone number. He also asked provocative questions, like what Dandia thought of the killing in Benghazi of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya.

“That was a really dumb question – it was murder and obviously we thought it was wrong,” Dandia said. But he gave Rahman the benefit of the doubt.

“I attributed that to the fact he had mental health and drug addiction issues. I thought we should be patient with him.”

A few months after Rahman entered his life, Dandia was taken aside by a member of his local Muslim community who was working as an NYPD officer. “You are being watched, there’s a file with your name and photos in it and you are being followed,” he told Dandia.

Seven months into their friendship, Rahman posted a confession on Facebook. He was an NYPD informant tasked with infiltrating Muslim groups and mosques.

The news travelled fast and sent a chill throughout the area. Mosques asked Dandia to stop fundraising for his food bank as they were afraid of being targeted themselves. Dandia grew reclusive.

“It made me suspicious of people. I hid my left-leaning political views and deeper religious commitments. That wasn’t how I wanted to live, in a state of permanent paranoia, but there was a complete breakdown in trust.”

Through the Associated Press, Dandia came to learn that he was just a speck in the NYPD’s mountainous surveillance of Muslims. Communities up and down the east coast were mapped through a secret “Demographics Unit” and individuals’ daily habits – shopping, work, prayer, school – tracked on massive CIA-designed databases.

Muslims with drug habits who fell into the NYPD’s clutches, like Rahman, were offered lenient treatment in return for turning informant.

“I felt betrayed,” Dandia said. “I was born and raised in New York. This is the city that I love and that I’m proud to call my home. It targeted me because of my religion, like a foreign enemy.”

Since Snowden shone his laser beam into the secret surveillance state-within-a-state, there has been a concerted effort to restore the balance, destroyed after 9/11, between individual liberties and national security. The USA Freedom Act in 2015 curtailed some of the NSA’s metadata practices, passing the storage of bulk phone records from the agency to the phone companies, and opening up the foreign intelligence surveillance court to a modicum of public scrutiny.

It was the first time since the 1970s that Congress had limited the NSA’s authority in any way. “We have closed great swathes of the internet to the oldest methods of mass surveillance,” Snowden told the Guardian.

En 2019 the NSA let it be known that it had shut down its mass collection of phone and text records. The NSA cited “technical irregularities”, but by then it was widely known that the spying program had not only been illegal in its inception, it just hadn’t worked.

Despite the NSA’s claim that by snooping on all Americans’ communications it had thwarted numerous other 9/11s, the agency could only point to one terrorism case, la de Basaalay Moalin, found guilty of funding Somali extremism, that had come through the phone records program. Last year a federal judge concluded that even Moalin’s case had been irrelevant: the NSA played no role in his conviction.

There have been other victories in the battle against the surveillance state. Wyden was heartened by the vote in the Senate last year on his amendment to protect the browsing history of Americans from secret surveillance.

The amendment failed, but by only one vote. “I thought that was very telling, we almost won – that wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago.”

Asad Dandia signed up to a class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s mass surveillance of him and so many other Muslim Americans. En 2016 they achieved a groundbreaking settlement that sharply reined in police targeting of religious and racial groups.

“I felt empowered, it gave me hope that Americans can push the country to live up to its own ideals," él dijo.

Perhaps the biggest shift has been among the American people. The urge of individuals to protect themselves against state eavesdropping became so intense that tech giants were forced to respond and in 2016, for the first time since the internet was created, it carried more encrypted data than unencrypted.

Which is not to say that the state-within-a-state has withered away, or that the balance between privacy and security has been perfected. “Not even close,” Cohn said.

The Guardian asked surveillance experts what, in the present moment, keeps them up at night. What dastardly new tricks from the spymasters do they fear most?

Wyden pointed to legal loopholes that allow shady private data brokers to sell Americans’ personal information to government agencies without any court oversight. “I continue to be very worried about that," él dijo.

Snowden raised a similar shift, where mass surveillance is now predominantly performed by “amoral telecommunications and surveillance-masquerading-as-advertising companies. They exploit weaknesses in our laws, devices and networks to pad out their dossiers, and then sell them to governments.”

Cohn talked about how surveillance cameras were being weaponized with the addition of facial recognition technology that could have especially dire consequences for people of colour.

Wizner said he sweated over the rise of robotic surveillance and AI. “More and more we will see critical decisions affecting liberty being made inside black boxes," él dijo.

For Patrick Toomey of the ACLU’s national security project, what keeps him up at night is simply all of it, the whole technological gamut. “The threat is persistent surveillance – of being surveilled wherever we go using a vast network of devices that can potentially listen to what we say, or recognize who we are based on our faces or the way we walk. There’s a very real danger that this sensitive information will be used to make decisions that are discriminatory or inaccurate, that can profoundly impact our lives.”

In the last analysis, the US surveillance state got away with operating in total secret for so many years after 9/11 that it raises the question: are we still in the dark?

“This will always be like trying to keep the kibble from the cat,” Snowden said. “So long as they know what they want is out there somewhere, they’re going to work out new ways to get it.”

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