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Fears of DCS-1000: VALIDATED

In the grand scheme of things, post 9-11, in a time of government by finger pointing, this week’s story about a glitch with DCS-1000 is not large. The significance of it is.

Don’t know what DCS-1000 is? That’s intentional. Does the name Carnivore ring a stronger memory bell? It should. That’s the FBI computer intelligence program to covertly monitor e-mail of suspects, all preceded by appropriate warrants, all so carefully controlled as to not grab the e-mail of innocents. That’s what we were told. Well, crap called a rose won’t ever smell like one, and Carnivore renamed DCS-1000 to eliminate the ominous connotation of the name will not change the ominous reality of the program.

As the emerging story goes, based on documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), in March 2000, the FBI unit investigating Al Qaeda obtained a warrant to capture the e-mails of a Denver, Colorado suspect. The Carnivore/DCS-1000 button got pushed, and e-mails began to materialize from the suspect–and a bunch of other folks not under investigation.

At this point, according to an internal memo obtained by EPIC, the FBI technician running the program became so rattled over the unintended intercepts that he destroyed all the captured e-mails, including those of the suspect. (The FBI now says that the e-mails have been recovered and are currently under seal at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that secretly oversees such sensitive matters.)

The memo, from whom the FBI won’t say, was sent to the FBI associate general counsel for national security affairs, M.E. Bowman. The memo primarily indicates the fury of someone at the Department of Justice’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review–first over the intercept foul-up, but more fundamentally over the sense that the FBI had misled DOJ as to the readiness, capabilities and containment of the program. The memo’s author also refers, without detail, to other Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act mistakes.

The memo was dated April 5, 2000. The author was preparing to "go to the field" to deal with the problems. Yet, in July 2000, approximately four months later, FBI Assistant Director Donald M. Kerr was telling a Congressional Committee, "[Carnivore] selects messages based on criteria set out in the court order, for example, messages transmitted to or from a particular account or to or from a particular user. If the device is placed at some point on the network where it cannot discriminate messages as set out in the court order, it simply lets all such messages pass by unrecorded."

In FBI Director Mueller’s reorganization plan, we did not note the formalization of an office of damage control, but that area could use as much thoughtful refocus as the substantive responsibilities of the FBI. With regard to the surveillance glitch, FBI spokesman John Collingwood just this week blamed the problems on an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and that may well be the scariest part of the story.

We have a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, supposedly administered by the Department of Justice Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, subject to the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, presumably overseen, to some extent, by intelligence committees of Congress, with operations, in this instance, carried out by the FBI’s Usama bin Laden unit of the International Terrorism Operations Section. All that government apparatus, and this incident is the result of problems at an ISP? That is, of course and unfortunately, credible to anyone with a computer, but it shouldn’t be, not for critical and sensitive government intelligence operations.

We are not among those who believe that publicly flogging the dead horses of past intelligence mistakes will yield much consequential guidance for the future. The collective catharsis of 9-11 will, in and of itself, do more. It already has.

As to Carnivore, it’s a nasty little program, defined more accurately by its critics than its users: "Carnivore is a powerful but clumsy tool that endangers the privacy of innocent American citizens. We have now learned that its imprecision can also jeopardize important investigations, including those involving terrorism," said David Sobel, general counsel of EPIC.

To adequately thwart terrorism, we need strong, decisive, cutting edge intelligence and law enforcement. We do not need, and cannot abide, those who would mislead their handlers, the courts, the Congress and, by extension, the rest of us on whose behalf all such actions are undertaken.

[Posted May 30, 2002]

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