Stellar Wind is the open secret code name for certain information collection activities performed by the United States’ National Security Agency and revealed by Thomas M. Tamm to New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. The operation was approved by President George W. Bush shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The program’s activities involve data mining of a large database of the communications of American citizens, including e-mail communications, phone conversations, financial transactions, and Internet activity.
There were internal disputes within the Justice Department about the legality of the program, because data is collected for large numbers of people, not just the subjects of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants. In March 2004, the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that the program was illegal. The day after the ruling, Ashcroft became critically ill with acute pancreatitis. President Bush sent White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. to Ashcroft’s hospital bed, where Ashcroft lay semiconscious, to request that he sign a document reversing the Justice Department’s ruling. However, Ashcroft was incapable of signing the document. Bush then reauthorized the operation, over formal Justice Department objections. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller, Acting Attorney General James Comey, and many prominent members of the Justice Department were prepared to resign over the matter. Valerie Caproni the FBI general counsel, said, “From my perspective, there was a very real likelihood of a collapse of government.” Bush subsequently reversed the authorization.
During the Bush Administration, the Stellar Wind cases were referred to by FBI agents as “pizza cases” because many seemingly suspicious cases turned out to be food takeout orders. Approximately 99 percent of the cases led nowhere, but 1 percent bore fruit. One of the known uses of this data was the creation of suspicious activity reports, or “SARS”, about people suspected of terrorist activities. It was one of these reports that revealed former NY governor Elliot Spitzer‘s use of prostitutes, even though he was not suspected of terrorist activities.
In March 2012 Wired Magazine published “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” talking about a new NSA facility and says “For the first time, a former NSA official has gone on the record to describe the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, in detail.” Naming the official William Binney a former NSA code breaker. Binney goes on to say that the NSA has highly secured rooms that tap into major switches, and satellite communications at AT&T and Verizon both.  The article suggests that the otherwise dispatched Stellar Wind is actually an active program.
by Laura Poitras
To those who understand state surveillance as an abstraction, I will try to describe a little about how it has affected me. The United States apparently placed me on a “watch-list” in 2006 after I completed a film about the Iraq war. I have been detained at the border more than 40 times. Once, in 2011, when I was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and asserted my First Amendment right not to answer questions about my work, the border agent replied, “If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find our answers on your electronics.”‘ As a filmmaker and journalist entrusted to protect the people who share information with me, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to work in the United States. Although I take every effort to secure my material, I know the N.S.A. has technical abilities that are nearly impossible to defend against if you are targeted.
The 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which oversees the N.S.A. activities, are up for renewal in December. Two members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats, are trying to revise the amendments to insure greater privacy protections. They have been warning about “secret interpretations” of laws and backdoor “loopholes” that allow the government to collect our private communications. Thirteen senators have signed a letter expressing concern about a “loophole” in the law that permits the collection of United States data. The A.C.L.U. and other groups have also challenged the constitutionality of the law, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments in that case on Oct. 29.
Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker who has been nominated for an Academy Award and whose work was exhibited in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. She is working on a trilogy of films about post-9/11 America. This Op-Doc is adapted from a work in progress to be released in 2013.
This video is part of a series by independent filmmakers who have received grants from the BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute.
Who is watching the NSA?
by Shane Harris
IN March 2002, John M. Poindexter, a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, sat down with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the National Security Agency. Mr. Poindexter sketched out a new Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness, that proposed to scan the world’s electronic information – including phone calls, e-mails and financial and travel records – looking for transactions associated with terrorist plots. The N.S.A., the government’s chief eavesdropper, routinely collected and analyzed such signals, so Mr. Poindexter thought the agency was an obvious place to test his ideas.
He never had much of a chance. When T.I.A.’s existence became public, it was denounced as the height of post-9/11 excess and ridiculed for its creepy name. Mr. Poindexter’s notorious role in the Iran-contra affair became a central focus of the debate. He resigned from government, and T.I.A. was dismantled in 2003.
But what Mr. Poindexter didn’t know was that the N.S.A. was already pursuing its own version of the program, and on a scale that he had only imagined. A decade later, the legacy of T.I.A. is quietly thriving at the N.S.A. It is more pervasive than most people think, and it operates with little accountability or restraint. [..]
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) asked the NSA a simple question: how many persons inside the United States have been spied upon by the NSA? I. Charles McCullough, the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, answer was that to answer that question would violate the privacy of citizens. In other words, they probably don’t know.
In July, in response to a request from Sen. Wyden, IG McCullough declassified three statements “one of which indicated that the FISA court agreed with Wyden that the government had “circumvented the spirit of the law.” Even the Wall Street Journal reported that this “represented the first time the government has acknowledged U.S. spy activities violated the Constitution since the passage of” the Amendments Act in 2008.
Whistleblowers like Mr. Binney, Thomas Drake, as well as, journalists like Ms. Poitras and James Risen put their reputations, freedom and lives on the line to warn us about the unregulated, unmonitored surveillance of the NSA. No one is watching the NSA but they are watching us.