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James Bamford on FISA & How U.S. Intel and Palantir Feed Israel’s Killing Machine in Gaza

Web ExclusiveApril 23, 2024
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Watch Part 2 of our interview with investigative journalist James Bamford about his new article for The Nation, headlined “The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance.” He also discusses his other new report, “How US Intelligence and an American Company Feed Israel’s Killing Machine in Gaza.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with James Bamford, investigative journalist, whose new piece for The Nation is headlined “The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance.” This is Democratic Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois speaking against extending the reauthorization of FISA. That’s the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It would later be signed into law by President Biden.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: The bill could allow the government to force ordinary U.S. businesses with access to communications equipment, like a Wi-Fi router, to give the National Security Agency access to their equipment. This would greatly expand the number and types of companies forced to assist the NSA with spying and increase warrantless collection of Americans’ communications. Another provision in the House bill would authorize the use of Section 702 data by immigration authorities. I am very concerned that that would allow a future administration to target DREAMers and other noncitizens who are only applying for travel documents and are subject to extensive background checks in that capacity.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, you’re one of the leading experts on the NSA, on intelligence gathering in this country. Can you respond to Dick Durbin? And, you know, since that time, of course, President Biden has signed 702 into law, this section of the law, so that it wouldn’t lapse. Yet people like Dick Durbin and Republicans in both the Senate and the House, along with progressive Democrats, oppose this, in rare unity.

JAMES BAMFORD: Right, yeah, I’ve sort of been on this issue for a very long time. Christopher Hitchens and I and a few other people joined a lawsuit back in 2005, led by the ACLU, against the NSA. We sued NSA, saying, “You shouldn’t be able to do this. You shouldn’t be able to have these warrantless eavesdropping powers.” And we won in the lower court, but then it was appealed by NSA, and they won in the appeals court. The Supreme Court decided not to hear it, so it became law — or, it became law. We lost our lawsuit.

But one of the things that we were pointing out then is just as true then as it is now, and that’s the fact that among the people that are going to be eavesdropped on by this new section of the — section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the lawyers and journalists. So, the problem here is that I speak to people overseas all the time, and so do most journalists that are covering international issues. And now those communications can be eavesdropped on at any time, because you’re talking to somebody outside the country. And that’s a really big problem if you’re promising somebody that you’re going to grant them confidentiality, when in reality the NSA is not only listening to it, but they’re tape recording it, or recording it, and then storing it, storing it for forever. I mean, there’s no time limit on it. And the FBI can go through it any time they want without a warrant. So, those are among the problems.

The other one is the attorneys. There are a lot of attorneys who speak to clients and witnesses and fellow attorneys overseas, and they’ll have no privacy on those communications. So, if there’s a case against the — or, there is a defendant who’s fighting a court case in the U.S. and the attorney is talking to witnesses in that case overseas, the NSA could be eavesdropping on those communications without a warrant. There’s no exception for attorneys or journalists or anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the forces that want this and those that don’t. I mean, it has been extended.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, there’s always been a group of people that want it because they feel that there’s a need, after 9/11, for looking for terrorists everywhere. The problem, in the past, this hasn’t proved that effective in terms of catching terrorists, but it has been very effective on eavesdropping on people’s private communications. So, you have a group of people that want to demonstrate that they’re very adamant that we keep terrorists out of the country, and then they’re for the act.

And then there’s the privacy people who are on the other side, who have been arguing that this is far too much power, and if the U.S. wants to do this, then they should get a warrant. I mean, there was a bill to — or, an amendment to get a warrant to this, and it was a tie vote. It was only broken by the speaker of the House, who sided on the favor of the people that wanted the eavesdropping. So, it is very divided. And that’s one of the key issues, is: Should there be a warrant requirement to this section of the FISA act?

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who don’t understand — and you’re the expert on this — what the NSA, the National Security Agency, is, a number of times larger than the CIA.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the NSA is the largest intelligence agency on Earth. I mean, it’s just gigantic. It’s basically a city. I’ve been there many times, because I’ve done three books on it, several documentaries and countless articles. So, over the years, I’ve been there numerous times. And it’s just an enormous city devoted to eavesdropping. Most of the eavesdropping, obviously, is overseas. But that’s the problem. Some of the eavesdropping is done on Americans without a warrant. And that’s the major problem. Again, NSA has this capability to not only pick up enormous amounts of communications, but then store them in this enormous data center, which acts basically as an external hard drive for NSA, and store it forever. And then the FBI would have the opportunity to go through that without a warrant. So, basically, what you have is the world’s largest intelligence agency, devoted to eavesdropping, and this bill allows them to do it without a warrant on Americans who are calling people overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the bill widens the definition of “electronic communication service provider.” Explain more how it expand the NSA’s power, the largest intelligence-gathering agency in the world.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, before, it was able to get it from Google and other major Big Tech companies that operate in the United States. And by law, they were required to turn this over to the NSA. It expands it by allowing the NSA to also get data from a lot of smaller data centers. The size doesn’t matter. They just — if you’re collecting data, the NSA will have a right to go in there and ask for that data. So, it’s a enormous expansion. It seems like every few years, whenever this bill comes up, there’s another expansion, and it keeps expanding. And, you know, it’s ironic. Forty years ago was 1984, the year that George Orwell predicted that we would have a surveillance state, and we keep creeping and creeping closer to Orwell’s prediction.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford, you just wrote a piece in The Nation, its headline, “The Nuclear Explosion That Makes US Aid to Israel Illegal.” You talk about a nuclear explosion that occurred in the early-morning hours of September 22nd, 1979, that was detected by geophysicists in Antarctica and researchers in Puerto Rico, and how it determined that it was secret nuclear tests by Israel, outlined by CIA documents and other sources. Tell us why this is so significant.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it’s significant because two years before that, 1977, there was an amendment passed that said that any country that explodes a nuclear weapon that’s not a signatory to the nuclear weapons pact, we should ban any kind of military aid and assistance going to that country as a penalty. And again, that was passed in 1977. And the Israelis exploded this nuclear weapon in 1979. So they’re in violation of that amendment to the law. So, in order to enforce the law, the U.S. should cut off all the aid to Israel. I mean, that was the reason that that amendment was put in there, was to get these rogue states — and that’s what Israel is considered, a rogue state, because it has weapons that it never declared. It exploded a nuclear weapon secretly. And it’s never signed these treaties, these nuclear weapons treaties.

So, it’s a rogue pariah state when it comes to nuclear weapons, and the U.S. has the right to enforce the law against Israel — in other words, cut off all military aid. And I suggested that that’s what the U.S. should do, because of the abuse that the Israelis are putting to all the weapons that we’re giving to them. We should be cutting off all these weapons. And this is one way to do it legally, without any problem. I mean, that’s the law. Cut it off.

AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote a piece headlined “How US Intelligence and an American Company Feed Israel’s Killing Machine in Gaza.” You’re talking about the Denver-based company Palantir. And we spoke about that in the first segment of this interview, and people can check it out at democracynow.org. Overall, how does the integration of AI technology into military operations challenge traditional notions of accountability and intelligence gathering, Jim?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, Palantir is a very powerful company when it comes to targeting. They supply most of the targeting data, assistance of the software, and so forth, for Ukraine, for example. So, now they’re also doing it for Israel. And what it does is it basically puts it in the hands of a robot. I mean, that’s what AI is. So, it takes out of the hands of humans a lot of the judgment. And that creates a lot of problems. There’s 10% of the targets that it picks out are errors. That’s a lot of people that are killed, if it’s 10%.

And the way some of this targeting is done is, once a person is inside a house, that’s when they target them. And it kills their entire family, even though they’re only after this one person. Some of the AI says — that they use, says, “The person is at home now.” So that’s when the targeting begins. They blast the house. They kill the wife, husband, children, anybody who happens to be in the house. And one person who visited Palantir, I guess it was about a year ago or so, in England, they said it just rapidly accelerates the amount of targeting. Where it might have taken hours to pick out the right target to make sure that they’re right, now could be done in virtual seconds, 20 seconds or something like that. So, there’s no human interaction. The machine says, you know, “Blow this house up,” and somebody pushes a button to blow that house up, without a lot of human interaction to determine whether that — how many civilians are going to be killed, whether that person was really associated with Hamas. And it just becomes a killing machine.

So, what I suggested in the article is that in addition to having restrictions on the export of deadly weapons to foreign countries, which we do, because once a country gets them, they could be unaccountable, also have restrictions on this type of targeting software that’s used, because it’s the same thing. I mean, the bomb kills you, but also the target that puts you on the kill list makes you dead. So, both those things play into each other. And you should — the U.S. should consider restricting the sale of these very powerful targeting software systems.

AMY GOODMAN: We also talked about this with the Yuval Abraham, who exposed both the program Lavender — and he got this from top Israeli intelligence officers, who revealed this, and also the program Where’s Daddy? which, as you said, very little time in human beings overseeing the targeting. And it specifically looks for men in Gaza who are not at work, but who are at home at night, with the average number of people killed in their family something like 20.

JAMES BAMFORD: Yeah, and that’s murder, as far as I’m concerned, as far as most people, you know, in the civilized world are concerned. If you know you’re targeting civilians and there’s no restrictions on that, that’s unauthorized killing. That’s murder. And that’s what these systems are able to do. I don’t know where the dividing line is with Palantir. They supply targeting equipment. I don’t know if they’re involved with the systems that were described in the article that you referred to, the Lavender system. But they all come together in the targeting of innocent civilians in Gaza. I mean, you need the targeting software, the very, very sophisticated software, and then you need the people to program it to do these things. So, this is a very big problem, and the U.S. doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to it whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jim, the implications that arise from Palantir’s AI machines relying on data from the National Security Agency?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yeah. The other thing that goes into this equation is the fact that a lot of the information that goes into the targeting comes from NSA, comes from the United States. Now, for decades, the U.S. has had this agreement. Edward Snowden, who I interviewed in Moscow soon after he arrived there after taking enormous amounts of data from the NSA, told me that was one of the worst violations he saw when he was at the agency, was the giving of all that data. A lot of that data was eavesdropping on Palestinians in the United States talking to Palestinian relatives or friends in the Occupied Territories, in Gaza and so forth, so that once they gave that to the Israelis, they could use that for targeting. It was so bad at some point — at one point, that even after Snowden left and revealed that a year later, there were, I think, 48 Israelis, military people, who were attached to Unit 8200, the Israeli equivalent of NSA, who quit in disgust and went to the press and said, “We don’t want to do this anymore, because it’s so invasive in targeting of the Palestinians.” So, those were — that came from the inside of Unit 8200, to show you how dramatic it was.

So, the U.S. is supplying a lot of the data. A lot of the software for the targeting comes from Palantir. And then the NSA is supplying a lot of the information that goes to these data machines, basically. And that’s the names of the people, who they are, what their phone numbers are, what their contacts are, and so forth. And the NSA has been doing that for a very long time as part of this agreement. And again, as part of what the documents that Snowden left NSA with, one of them was the actual agreement between the NSA and Unit 8200, between the U.S. and Israel, in terms of sharing this data.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford is investigative journalist. His new piece for The Nation is headlined “The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance.” You can also link to his other piece, “How US Intelligence and an American Company Feed Israel’s Killing Machine in Gaza.” You can go to those links at democracynow.org, where you can also find Part 1 of our conversation. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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