Minutes after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, Secret Service agents burst into the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, stunned by the attack. The VP didn't move until one guard marched to his desk, grabbed him by his belt and hauled him out of the room.
The security detail rushed Cheney to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, an underground bunker designed to protect presidents from aerial attacks there. As the day progressed, Cheney made critical, resounding decisions about America's security.
To prevent another attack from happening again, Cheney immediately reached out to organizations like the FBI and CIA. He also got in touch with General Mike Hayden, the director of the National Security Agency, the NSA.
Hayden told the White House that he had done everything in his power to prevent an attack. But despite the NSA's best efforts, they had still been blindsided by the plot. Hayden laid the blame for this on America's restrictive privacy laws. If the NSA had more power to monitor suspected terrorists, they may have been able to stop 9/11.
Based on Hayden's assessment, the White House realized the agency needed more tools to track the country's potential enemies. So they told the NSA director to make a shopping list of the equipment, phones and federal authority he needed in order to spy on the American people. All Hayden had to do was ask. Welcome to conspiracy theories, a Spotify original from Park asked every Monday and Wednesday, we dig into the complicated stories behind the world's most controversial events and search for the truth.
I'm Carter Roy. And I'm Molly Brandenberg. And neither of us are conspiracy theorists, but we are open minded, skeptical and curious. Don't get us wrong. Sometimes the official version is the truth, but sometimes it's not.
You can find episodes of conspiracy theories and all other Spotify originals from Parkhurst for free on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
This is our first episode on PRISM Surveillance, a program authorized by President George W. Bush after 9/11. Lawmakers claimed it only analyzed the communications between suspected terrorists operating within the U.S., but evidence suggests it was much more expansive. Today, we'll explore how the government justified such power, who potentially abuse the system and why whistleblowers exposed it.
Next time, we'll take a deep dive into a few conspiracy theories about PRISM, namely just how invasive the government is, whether or not Internet providers have been aware of it all along and if these programs continue today. We have all that and more coming up. Stay with us. This episode is brought to you by wild turkey, one on one bourbon. There's a time and a place to be bold, but when something works, why change it? That's why wild turkey is still made with the same recipe as in 1940 to age longer for more character with a high rye content for spicy flavor.
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This episode is brought to you by Carmex at CarMax, the best way to buy a car is your way. Choose from over fifty thousand CarMax certified vehicles at CarMax dot com and buy online or in-store with curbside pickup and home delivery in select markets. Get all the details today at CarMax dot com. In 1952, President Harry S. Truman secretly authorized the creation of the National Security Agency, the NSA, to monitor the communications of foreign communist governments like the Soviet Union.
The purpose was to gather as much intelligence on the U.S. enemies as possible, despite such a massive responsibility. Few people even knew the program existed. In fact, it was so secretive that the intelligence community joked that the letters of the NSA actually stood for no such agency.
This secrecy allowed the NSA to operate with nearly unlimited power and zero oversight. These conditions made it a breeding ground for corruption, especially during the Nixon administration in the early 1970s.
During his tenure as president, Nixon didn't just use the resources of the NSA to spy on other countries. He also turned them inward and used them on the American people. He would have gotten away with it, except for a bombshell that sent spasms through the American government, Watergate.
This infamous event became part of American history on June 17th, 1972, when five burglars were arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., the Democratic National Committee had an office there and the crooks were trying to break in.
But these robbers weren't attempting to steal money. They wanted to wiretap the phones, which the Democratic Party used to discuss important political strategies. And even worse, the men caught were connected to President Nixon's re-election campaign.
Nixon tried to remove himself from the issue, but The Washington Post proved he had been directly involved. He resigned in disgrace on August 9th, 1974.
Just five months later, on January 27th, 1975, a special committee looked into how the intelligence community abused its power under Nixon. Over the course of nine months, it called more than 800 witnesses from the FBI and CIA to testify.
This led the committee to discover a top secret program known as Project Shamrock. It was a surveillance program in which the NSA controversially accessed the records of major telecommunications companies in the name of national defense.
Shamrock started out as an initiative to gather intel on foreign spies operating within the U.S. But since the 1950s, it expanded dramatically. By the time of its discovery in 1975, it was intercepting 150000 messages a month, many of which were from American citizens.
It's important to understand the magnitude of Nixon and the NSA's actions. To most people, it was not only a severe abuse of power, but a flagrant disregard of everything the American constitution stood for, most notably the Fourth Amendment.
That section clearly states that the government can't look at any personal communications. The only exception is if they suspect the person to be a criminal and have the written approval of a judge or magistrate on a warrant to guarantee this sort of misuse never happened again.
Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the better known as FISA. It was a landmark piece of legislation. It ensured that the government would not violate the Fourth Amendment by spying on its own citizens.
FISA still allowed federal law enforcement to monitor certain conversations, but only for specific individuals with connections to foreign powers. More importantly, only if those people were suspected of espionage or terrorism. In other words, the average American didn't have to worry about wiretaps or other forms of eavesdropping.
The NSA conducted operations throughout the 80s, but they didn't spy on the American people. Given the scandal they'd closed in the previous decade, the organization was almost entirely focused on international matters after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Officials believe the U.S. no longer needed the NSA's expertise, so its budget was cut. In fact, by 2000, the agency had been so badly neglected that the entire facility experienced a site wide network outage.
However, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the U.S. found a new way to leverage the NSA instead of spying on the Soviets, they would spy on the nation's new enemy, al-Qaida.
In early October 2001, the director of the NSA, General Mike Hayden, outlined his plan to prevent another 9/11. He referred to it as the president's surveillance program, or PSP.
It would not only wiretap phone calls, it would also analyze the Internet activity of U.S. citizens and countless others around the world.
Hayden knew his project would violate the Fourth Amendment, so he enlisted George W. Bush for help. The president told him not to worry about legality. His lawyers would find a way to make it work. The important thing was to stop future terrorist attacks. Bush's confidence wasn't misplaced. On October 26, 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act.
This bill was packed with numerous laws and regulations. Most people believed it simply gave the NSA more funding, streamline communication between intelligence agencies and increase the punishments for acts of terrorism.
But the urgency of passing the bill purposely shrouded deeper causes of confusing legal ease. There were sections hidden within the act that granted the NSA special permissions. Most notably, they could collect the calls and emails of suspected terrorists within the U.S. All they needed was a warrant. In 2003, a man named Thomas Tamm began working in the Department of Justice. His job was to prepare such warrants so the government could legally eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.
However, in the first few months of his role, Tamm found evidence that the government hadn't been obtaining warrants for its wiretaps and email gathering in Tam's mind. He was either missing something or the government was gathering the information illegally. If that was the case, they were breaking their own rules and committing a felony.
But Tamm wasn't missing anything when he asked his supervisor about the issue. She told him that she just assumed that the NSA had illegally bypassed obtaining the warrants, but she didn't want to cause trouble, so she ignored it.
Based on this conversation, Tam came to a terrifying conclusion. The Patriot Act had given the NSA the power to wiretap the phone calls and read the emails of Americans without repercussions.
This fundamentally changed the purpose of the NSA. It was no longer looking at known terrorists like Bush claimed it was now seeking unknown terrorists. They gathered trillions of phone calls and emails from U.S. citizens without oversight or permission from a governing authority. Everyone was a target.
Deeply concerned, Tamm secretly met with a powerful Senate staffer and asked her if anyone else knew the full extent of the program. When she refused to tell him, Tamm informed her that he needed to go to the press as he turned to leave. She said, Tom, whistleblowers frequently don't end up very well, end quote.
Tan agonized about what to do one day during his lunch break. He left his office at the Department of Justice. He ducked into a subway tunnel and found a payphone with a pounding head and sweaty hands.
Tam made an anonymous call to The New York Times, fully aware that he could face decades in a federal prison for this action. He reached out to a reporter who covered the Department of Justice. Tamm told him everything.
The journalist worked with his team to investigate Tam's story. After months of preparation and debating about if they should even publish the story, The Times eventually broke the news. In December 2005, the article exposed everything Tamm had told them. The government had secretly authorized the NSA to spy on American citizens without warrants in order to find terrorists. Naturally, it sent shockwaves throughout the world, America, the bastion of free speech, had an iron grip on its communications.
But instead of denying that the program existed, Bush actually confessed, at least partially to the American people. During a press conference, he told the country, I authorized the National Security Agency to intercept the communications of people in the U.S. with known links to Al Qaida.
While this was true, it was an incredibly truncated version of the program.
Bush carefully spun it so it didn't sound that invasive. He made no mention of the most notable aspect that he had authorized the NSA to collect trillions of domestic phone calls and emails of regular U.S. citizens without a search warrant.
Bush's half truth placated the people's outrage. By the time Obama became president in 2009, the public believed they could fully trust their government again. It appeared as if the new administration would bring a new level of transparency. However, certain revelations in the following years would show just how misplaced that trust was.
Coming up, one citizen proves how invasive the government might be. Hi, listeners, it's Vanessa from podcast. If you haven't had a chance to check out my series mythology, you don't know what you're missing. Heroes, Gods, Monsters and Mayhem. This podcast has it all every Tuesday. Take a deep dive back in time exploring the history, origins and meaning behind the myths that have shaped the Earth. Each episode of mythology dramatizes a story pulled from beliefs from around the world, giving insight into how our ancestors saw the universe and how those stories resonate in our lives today.
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Terms apply to Sportsbook Doug Faneuil Dotcom four terms and restrictions. Gambling problem call one 800 gambler. And now back to the story. Bill. In 2005, The New York Times revealed that the NSA had egregiously overstepped its bounds, the security organization was collecting the calls and emails of the general populace without a warrant. With the truth out in the open, the government was forced to admit to spying on suspected terrorists in the U.S., but it claimed they weren't doing it to regular civilians.
That story worked until June 2013, when another whistleblower went on the record. This time, he provided indisputable proof that the government was spying on U.S. citizens without a warrant. Not only that, the NSA was gathering so much more than just emails and phone calls.
This man was Edward Snowden, a tall, bespectacled computer whiz from Maryland, like so many others, 9/11 inspired him to fight for the United States. He enlisted in the army in 2004 when he was 21. But after he injured both legs during a training exercise, he was medically discharged when the military didn't work out.
He found a new way to serve his country in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks the government needed to bolster its cyber security forces, so it relaxed its reliance on credentials.
This was great news for Snowden, who didn't have a degree but was well versed in programming. The new hiring policies allowed Snowden and thousands like him to land a job with top secret organizations such as the NSA with his technical expertise. Snowden easily rose through the ranks of that agency. By 2009, he was working for the NSA in Tokyo, Japan.
He operated in a role known as a systems administrator. This meant he was tasked with connecting the NSA's computer network with the CIA's. This way, the two agencies could share information that they had collected separately. Snowden had the ability to access nearly all of the classified documents he wanted at the time.
He was so in the weeds of figuring out technical solutions, but he didn't realize he was helping create a massive spy network. He had read the New York Times article from 2005, but believed the government had reformed since then.
Like so many American citizens, Snowden trusted that the Obama administration held the NSA to a higher standard. Unfortunately, his time in Japan revealed that wasn't the case at all.
Snowden was preparing to leave for work one evening when his boss requested a favor. He asked if Snowden could create a report about China's domestic surveillance program. The young programmer agreed and hunkered down for a long night of research. He didn't expect any surprises, but what he found shocked him. His investigation showed that the Chinese government had created a system which allowed it to collect, store and analyze all of the daily telephone and electronic communications of nearly its entire population.
That's roughly one billion people.
At first, Snowden was impressed by the technical aspects. All the manpower, computers and tools required to process the data was inspiring. However, his admiration quickly gave way to dread.
He came to see that if the American government already knew so much about China's domestic spy program, then the U.S. was most likely doing something similar to its own people.
He pushed down that concern, though, and turned in his finished report the following day. Snowden continued with his normal tasks but secretly kept digging through the NSA's databases.
When he had the time, he wanted to find out if the president's surveillance programs activities had expanded under Obama.
But he came up empty handed. Everything he found just told him what he already knew. One day, though, weeks after he'd given up the hunt, Snowden stumbled onto the proverbial smoking gun.
It was a classified report that gave the full details of the PSP under both Bush and Obama. Specifically, it gave Snowden more information about a program codenamed Stellar Wind.
The file revealed that the government was, in fact gathering the emails and phone calls of the American people without a warrant.
Furthermore, it was also collecting and analyzing other forms of digital communications and storing them for years.
Snowden spent the next several weeks in a depressed haze. He couldn't believe that the government was monitoring everyone as if they were all terrorists. The revelation went against many of Snowden's instincts from his upbringing in a military family to his patriotism.
Sadly, it also undermined his trust as far as Snowden knew, other than China, the only two countries so engaged in mass surveillance of their own people were the Nazis and the Soviets during World War Two. Although neither country had the ability to tap into phone calls on such a large scale, they still use their surveillance tactics to find and purge those they deemed undesirable.
In 2011, Snowden returned from Japan and tried to live a normal life. But despite his best efforts to manage his anxiety over government surveillance, he couldn't. The effort began to take a. Hold on him, mentally and physically, he began to have seizures, possibly due to the stress towards the end of 2011.
Snowden took a leave of absence from his job with the NSA and was bedridden for some months as the anxiety ebbed and his seizures began to wane.
In 2012, he took a contract role with the NSA in Hawaii. He hoped it would allow him to enjoy a slower pace of life.
Hawaii was much easier. His job only required him to do tasks he could essentially perform in his sleep. However, his role still granted him access to some of the government's most sensitive information.
With so much free time and security clearance, he began seeking more information regarding the NSA surveillance. While searching, he discovered deeply problematic policies which had been buried in the confusing jargon of the law.
The first was Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It stated that the government was allowed to require third parties to provide any and all relevant, tangible information to terrorist investigations.
That alone wasn't a huge deal. But Snowden discovered that the NSA abused this authorization. They had secretly interpreted Section 215 to allow them to collect all the content and metadata of telephone communications through organizations like AT&T and Verizon on an ongoing and daily basis.
Snowden also uncovered a section of the FISA Amendments Act titled Section 702. This was used to justify a program known as PRISM to intercept, analyze and store Internet content generated by U.S. citizens.
This meant that the U.S. could create a permanent record of everything someone had ever done. Snowden knew that this cache of personal data could blow up someone's entire life if it ever got out.
It could contain the secrets of nearly any American citizen information that the government could theoretically weaponize.
U.S. officials had originally pitched the Patriot Act as a series of laws that help them catch terrorists. But over the years it morphed into something far more invasive. And now the American people had no say about whether or not this should continue.
Snowden knew that this information had to go public so people could voice their opinions to equip them with the proper details. He downloaded thousands of files which meticulously chronicled the abuses of the NSA. Then he successfully smuggled the data out of the building.
Although Snowden possessed indisputable proof that the NSA was encroaching on individual privacy, he still was missing something he hadn't found proof that the NSA's agents were actually abusing the system. That is, until he took a new contract as an analyst with the NSA in Honolulu, his official role there was to sift through the communications of people around the world who had triggered the NSA's watch list. If the alert was severe, he would escalate. If it wasn't, he moved along, however mundane the work.
While in Honolulu, Snowden discovered that the NSA had created a powerful tool called Key Score.
Essentially, it was a giant search engine that allowed analysts to type in anyone's address, telephone number or other identifier and then go through their Internet presence from search history to social media posts.
In some instances, Snowden says he and his colleagues could even watch recordings of people's online sessions. Keep in mind, none of these searches had anything to do with terrorism. If they wanted, NSA workers could look up anyone like their boss or state senator on a whim.
However, no NSA analyst ever tried to dig up dirt on powerful heads of state. Instead, they practiced something called love, intelligence or love. Aren't the employees in the office would look up their current or former lovers and skim through all their personal communications.
Even the two senior analysts in the department got in on the horseplay. According to Snowden, if one of the targets they were spying on received a nude photo, the analysts would gather in a sick game of show and tell. The law explicitly stated that abusing the system would land them in jail for at least a decade. But no one worried about it.
The government couldn't publicly prosecute them because doing so would reveal two things officials never wanted people to know. One, a system of mass surveillance was in place and to the people in charge of it were egregiously misusing it.
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And now back to the story. From 2009 to early 2013, Edward Snowden discovered the scope of the NSA surveillance program was far greater than anyone had guessed.
It collected data and the correspondence of essentially every single American and millions of others across the globe.
Snowden knew he needed to tell the press about such a horrific abuse of power. But like the other whistleblower before him, Thomas Tamm, Snowden hesitated. It was such a risky action. However, his tipping point came when his job required him to spy on a man from Indonesia. This person was an engineer and father who had applied for a research position at a university in Iran.
The man was most likely not a terrorist and had no intention of becoming one. But granted the hostile relationship between the U.S. and Iran, the surveillance dragnet pinged his search history. Snowden was tasked with examining the information the NSA had captured, including footage from the man's webcam. At one point, the man's son looked directly into the camera and Snowden felt as if he'd been caught.
Snowden knew it was time to act between the months of March and May 2013, he organized the documents he wanted to release to the press and prepared to leave the country. He took all his money out of his bank account and stashed in the house he was living in with his girlfriend, Lindsay, in mid-May.
Lindsay left to go on a camping trip with friends while she was away. Snowden took a leave of absence from work, citing that his epilepsy had been acting up again. He then packed a few items of clothing and four laptops, one for secure communications, one for normal communications, a decoy and one that had never been connected to the Internet before on May 20th.
He left his smartphone on the kitchen counter, as well as a note telling Lindsay that he got called away for work and that he loved her. He then went to the airport, paid for a ticket in cash and flew to Hong Kong.
In geopolitical terms, Snowden saw Hong Kong as free enough from both the influence of China and the U.S. that he would be safe there.
Once he landed, he checked into the Mira Hotel, a busy establishment within a large shopping district. He stuffed pillows around the door to prevent anyone from eavesdropping on him and left the plastic do not disturb sign hanging from the handle. From there, he planned to announce to the world everything the government had done. But Snowden wouldn't do it alone.
In the days leading up to his departure, Snowden had been in touch with two journalists, a documentary filmmaker named Laura Poitras and a reporter for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald.
Snowden chose to collaborate with these two journalists because he trusted their previous reporting. Poitras was an award winning documentary director and Greenwald was a lawyer turned journalist who specialized in civil liberties.
Snowden opted not to go with The New York Times because of how they had started to publish their story on the NSA in 2005. And he didn't want to release the information by himself or dump it on WikiLeaks because it would be easier for the government to discredit him that way.
Ultimately, Snowden wanted to share his findings with reporters because he trusted their judgment on what to do with the information. They could craft the story and put the facts together in an ethical, compelling and non-technical way.
In addition to that, Snowden also wanted to remove as much of his own bias as he could from the story. He believed the surveillance was bad, but that decision wasn't up to him alone. He simply wanted people to be informed about it and empower them with information so they could determine if the program continued or not.
Waitress and Greenwald arrived at the Mirage Hotel on June 2nd. They had no clue what Snowden looked like, let alone what his real name was in their email communications. Snowden had only referred to himself through pseudonyms such as Citizen four. Just before meeting, however, Snowden sent an email telling them that he would be holding a Rubik's cube in one of the lounges.
When they finally met up, the journalists were shocked and slightly disappointed. Greenwald said he'd expected a retired CIA spook with gray hair, not some tall, lanky computer whiz. Nonetheless, they followed him to his room and hunkered down for a tense week of interviewing Greenwald later.
Remember that everyone was on edge the entire time. They didn't know if the NSA had figured out what Snowden was up to or how much information officials in Hong Kong had. It was entirely possible that either party would barge into the room at any minute and arrest everyone. Snowden was so concerned about third party surveillance that he covered himself with a blanket every time he entered a password on a laptop.
On June 5th, The Guardian published Greenwald's first story about the government collecting massive amounts of phone data. The following day, it published a story about PRISM. Then, on June 7th, The Washington Post ran waitress's story on PRISM. And finally, on June 9th, Snowden revealed his identity through a video. He explained who he was and how he came to access his information from Snowden's tiny hotel room.
The trio watched as news channels like CNN covered the fallout of the leak. Unfortunately, just like Bush, the Obama administration only provided a truncated version of the truth. Even in the face of such overwhelming evidence, they continued to downplay the significance of the data they were collecting.
In addition to denying the issue, a smear campaign erupted against Snowden. They claimed that he hadn't been a legitimate source, that he wasn't powerful enough to know as much as he claimed about PRISM and that his concerns were just those of a paranoid conspiracy theorist.
Ultimately, however, Snowden's case was rock solid and he had the backing of two of the most influential, trusted publications in the world. The government knew Snowden was a huge threat. In light of this, he was charged with espionage on June 14th. A formal request for Hong Kong to extradite him came on June 21st.
Snowden knew that being accused of such a severe crime would result in thousands of dollars in fines, decades in jail and potentially even death. Faced with these possibilities. Snowden fled the Mirage Hotel to lawyers and a handful of other people based in Hong Kong were sympathetic to Snowden's efforts and hit him while he tried to find a way out of the country.
This was the moment when a woman named Sarah Harrison entered the picture and editor and investigative journalist for WikiLeaks, she wanted to ensure no one suppressed Snowden's story in addition to being a writer.
Harrison was well versed in international law. She helped Snowden leave Hong Kong for Russia on the way there. Snowden asked Harrison why she was helping him. She replied with a dark sense of humor. Someone has to be the last person to ever see you alive. It might as well be me.
Fortunately, no one tried to kill Snowden once he arrived in Russia. The government there detained him for 40 days, but eventually granted him asylum on August 1st, 2013. As of today, Snowden still resides in the country as a political exile, where he continues to rally people against widespread state sponsored oversight.
Snowden's efforts didn't just alert people to the dangers of government eavesdropping, it also prompted debates about the efficacy of programs like PRISM. This leads us into conspiracy theory. Number one, although the U.S. government claimed that programs like PRISM were meant to fight terrorism, they might not have had much of an effect at all.
Conspiracy theory number two is that while tech companies like Apple and Google denied knowing about PRISM, evidence suggests that key decision makers at these organizations were fully aware of the program. In fact, they might have been financially rewarded by the NSA for their cooperation and conspiracy theory.
Number three, despite the public's knowledge of programs like PRISM, intelligence analysts still monitor our digital activities every day and violate our Fourth Amendment rights with impunity.
Next time we'll dig into all this from the efficacy of NSA surveillance to whether we're still being watched. In the meantime, consider your private conversations and how close they are to your devices.
Thanks for tuning in to conspiracy theories. We'll be back next time for Part two on conspiracy theories surrounding PRISM. For more information on the topic, we found permanent record by Edward Snowden helpful in our research.
You can find all episodes of conspiracy theories and all other Spotify originals from Park Cast for free on Spotify.
Until then, remember, the truth isn't always the best story, and the official story isn't always the truth.
Conspiracy Theories is a Spotify original from podcast. It is executive produced by Max Cutler Sound, designed by Dick Schroder with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Travis Clark. This episode of Conspiracy Theories was written by Robert Hecate with writing assistants by Nicholas Ward and McKenzie. More fact checking by Onya barely in research by Bradley Klein. Conspiracy theory stars Molly Brandenberg and Carter Roy.