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“Enormous Expansion of the Law”: James Bamford on FISA Extension, U.S.-Israel Data Sharing

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President Biden has signed legislation to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act despite years of protest from rights groups and privacy experts who say the law is routinely used to conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens. The Senate approved the FISA bill on Friday in a 60-34 vote, and critics say it not only reauthorizes domestic spying but also dramatically expands its scope. “It’s an enormous amount of data that they’re collecting and very few rules” limiting its collection, says investigative journalist James Bamford. He warns that personal information collected by U.S. intelligence is also shared with Israel, which uses the data to target people in Gaza. “The U.S. has got to stop supplying all this data and the targeting materials,” he says. Bamford’s new article for The Nation is headlined “The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Biden signed legislation to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, despite warnings from privacy experts the bill could greatly expand the ability of the government to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance. The Senate approved the FISA bill Friday in a 60-to-34 vote. Critics included Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who described the bill as, quote, “one of the most dramatic and terrifying expansions of government surveillance authority in history.”

SEN. RON WYDEN: If you have access to any communications, the government can force you to help it spy. That means anybody with access to a server, a wire, a cable box, a Wi-Fi router, a phone or a computer. … If this provision is enacted, the government can deputize any of these people against their will and force them, in effect, to become what amounts to an agent for Big Brother.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by James Bamford, longtime investigative journalist, who writes about this in his new piece for The Nation headlined “The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance.” In 1982, Jim Bamford published The Puzzle Palace, the first book exposing the inner workings of the NSA, much larger than the CIA.

Jim Bamford, thanks so much for being with us again. Explain what this FISA law now allows.


Well, it’s an enormous expansion of the law. It started out fairly modestly, and now it’s expanded enormously. Few people understand how much data really is collected. The NSA has this enormous facility out in Utah, a data center. It’s five times the size of the U.S. Capitol. And it holds up to a zettabyte or a yottabyte. That’s the highest numbers there are in terms of storage of data, enormous amounts of data. And that’s what is going to happen now, is the expansion of the law, the expansion of the collection of data. And a lot of that data will be American, Americans who have no idea they’re being eavesdropped on, because they’re going to become repositories in that data center.

The way the law works right now is that if you want to eavesdrop on an American in the United States, then you need a warrant. However, if you’re calling somebody outside of the United States, another person outside the United States who’s not an American citizen, then you have really no rights. They can eavesdrop on that conversation as much as possible. They can collect all those conversations and store them in the Utah data center. And then the FBI will then have the opportunity to go in there and search for whatever they want without a warrant. So, they could get your email address or your name on Facebook or whatever they — whatever identifying information they can, and then search that database to see what communications you have had outside the United States. So, it’s an enormous amount of data that they’re collecting and very few rules in terms of warrant requirements to obtain that data.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the parallels you see between the illegal eavesdropping from the Watergate scandal of the '70s then and the warrantless surveillance permitted under Section 702 that's just been signed off on so it wouldn’t lapse?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, after Watergate, there was a focus on eavesdropping. But again, that was a very long time ago, and that was when most people communicated on telephones. And there was no data collection. There was no email. So it was microscopic compared to what there is today.

The way it works is the NSA has satellites all over outside the Earth collecting satellite data from digital receivers, from communications devices, from iPhones and so forth. They have taps on undersea cables that come ashore. It’s called cable heads. And they have facilities there to pick up the data. All that data funnels into both NSA in Maryland and also in Utah. So there’s an enormous collection of data that I don’t think people have really a real concept of how much the NSA collects. It’s just enormous compared to what it was in the days of Watergate.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, I wanted to ask you about another new piece you’ve written for The Nation, headlined “How US Intelligence and an American Company Feed Israel’s Killing Machine in Gaza.” Earlier this month, we spoke to Israeli investigative journalist Yuval Abraham, who first reported this story for +972 and Local Call headlined “'Lavender': The AI machine directing Israel’s bombing spree in Gaza.” I asked him to describe the program.

YUVAL ABRAHAM: After October 7th, the military basically made a decision that all of these tens of thousands of people are now people that could potentially be bombed inside their houses, meaning not only killing them but everybody who’s in the building — the children, the families. And they understood that in order to try to attempt to do that, they are going to have to rely on this AI machine called Lavender with very minimal human supervision.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about this, Jim Bamford, and also talk about Palantir and what it is?

JAMES BAMFORD: Israel has an equivalent of the NSA. It’s called Unit 8200. They’re very sophisticated. It’s basically the same type of organization as the NSA. And Palantir is one of the companies that’s given — it’s an American company that’s based in Denver, and it has given an enormous amount of assistance to Unit 8200 in terms of targeting. And that goes to the military. So, the military targets civilians, lots of civilians. Most of the people killed were civilians. Women and children have been the people who have been targeted in the Occupied Territories, in Gaza. So, the NSA gives Unit 8200 an enormous amount of data from what it collects. When I interviewed Ed Snowden back in Moscow after he went to Moscow, taking all the data from NSA, he said that was one of the worst offenses he saw when he was at NSA, that they were giving all this American data, Palestinians talking overseas to relatives or friends in Palestine and the occupied territory, and NSA was giving that data to Unit 8200.

So, you have Unit 8200 that’s collecting a lot of data from the United States, from Americans. They’re using it for targeting. And Palantir is one of the companies that’s enormously sophisticated in terms of targeting. So, what the problem is here is that you’re getting information from the United States that the Israelis are using to target the civilians in Gaza. And there’s been 33,000 killed now, so it’s just an enormous problem that the U.S. has got to stop supplying all this data and the targeting materials to Gaza — or, rather, to the Israelis to target Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, we’d like to do Part 2 of this discussion and post this online at democracynow.org. James Bamford is a longtime investigative journalist. We’ll link to your pieces for The Nation magazine, one called “The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance,” and the other, “How US Intelligence and an American Company Feed Israel’s Killing Machine in Gaza.”

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for our digital fellowship. You can learn more and apply at democracynow.org. Check out our newsletter, our podcasts. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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