FBI’s “Quantico Circuit” — Still Spying, Still Lying

Tuesday’s Washington Post reports that FBI investigators “with the click of a mouse, [can] instantly transfer key data along a computer circuit to an FBI technology office in Quantico.”

Last month, I wrote that evidence of the Bureau’s massive spying operations on Americans had been uncovered and “that a new FISA whistleblower has stepped forward with information about a major wireless provider apparently granting the state unrestricted access to all of their customers’ voice communications and electronic data via a so-called ‘Quantico Circuit’.”

According to whistleblower Babak Pasdar, a telecom carrier he worked for as a security consultant, subsequently named as Verizon by the Post, said the company maintained a high-speed DS-3 digital line that allowed the Bureau and other security agencies “unfettered” access to the carrier’s wireless network, including billing records and customer data “transmitted wirelessly.”

Verizon denied the report that the FBI has open access to its network; a denial belied by documents obtained by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation describing the Bureau’s Digital Collection System.

When these allegations first surfaced they were stonewalled by major media. Nevertheless, the reports continued and we now have learned that electronic connections between major telecom firms and FBI personnel scattered across the country provide the Bureau with real-time access to who is speaking to whom, the time and duration of each call as well as the locations of those so targeted.

Despite half-hearted protests by Congress, the FBI’s budget for these operations have increased significantly. According to Post reporter Ellen Nakashima,

The bureau says its budget for the collection system increased from $30 million in 2007 to $40 million in 2008. Information lawfully collected by the FBI from telecom firms can be shared with law enforcement and intelligence-gathering partners, including the National Security Agency and the CIA. Likewise, under guidelines approved by the attorney general or a court, some intercept data gathered by intelligence agencies can be shared with law enforcement agencies.1

But who’s “watching the watchers,” or in this case, the listeners?

Since 1994, under rules mandated by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), passed by the “liberal” Clinton administration, federal rules are in place “to make clear a telecommunications carrier’s duty to cooperate in the interception of communications for Law Enforcement purposes, and for other purposes.” [emphasis added]

These rules specify that telecom carriers and manufacturers design their equipment, facilities and services so as to guarantee they have the necessary surveillance capabilities. This onerous piece of legislative flotsam specifies that common carriers, broadband internet access providers and providers of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service are designated “telecommunications carriers” under federal law and thus, are capable of interception by the state’s “security” bureaucracies.2

The FBI has since created a network of links and electronic hubs for collection purposes amongst the nation’s largest telecom carriers and internet providers “and about 40 FBI offices and Quantico, according to interviews and documents describing the agency’s Digital Collection System,” according to the Washington Post.

These revelations mirror those of AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein, who revealed that the super secretive National Security Agency had been given access by AT&T management to install “splitters” for the Agency hard-wired to an NSA “secure” room in the company’s central office in San Francisco. According to Klein,

In short, an exact copy of all internet traffic that flowed through critical AT&T cables–emails, documents, pictures, web browsing, Voice over-internet phone conservations, everything–was being diverted to equipment inside the secret room. In addition the documents reveal the technological gear used in their secret project, including a highly sophisticated search component capable of quickly sifting through huge amounts of digital data (including text, voice and images) in real time according to pre-programmed criteria.

It’s important to understand that the internet links which were connected to the splitter contained not just foreign communications but vast amounts of domestic traffic, all mixed together. Furthermore, the splitter has no selective abilities–it’s just a dumb device which copies everything to the secret room. And the links going through the splitter are AT&T’s physical connections to many other internet providers (e.g., Sprint, Qwest, Global Crossing, Cable & Wireless, and the critical West Coast Internet Exchange Point known as Mae West). Since these networks are interconnected, the government surveillance affects not only AT&T customers but everyone else–millions of Americans.

I also discovered in my conversations with other technicians that other “secret rooms” were established in Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. One of the documents I obtained also mentions Atlanta, and the clear inference in the logic of this setup, and the language of the documents, is that there are other such rooms across the country to complete the coverage–possibly 15 to 20 or more.3

As a key networking hub of the national security state’s electronic driftnet, the “Quantico circuit” enables the FBI and their CIA and NSA partners in crime to literally target any one or any group with highly-intrusive and silent monitoring of all electronic communications. Under the Bush administration’s repressive “public-private” police state architecture, privacy rights join Geneva Convention prohibitions against torture as yet another “quaint” notion, a “phantom of lost liberty,” in the memorable phrase uttered by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001.

While the Bureau claims that the content of a phone call or e-mail must be authorized by a court order showing “probable cause,” as with other abusive FBI practices such as the issuance of so-called “national security letters” to obtain financial or other private records, the legal bar undoubtedly is set very low.

These latest revelations of FBI abuse of Fourth Amendment protections, follow on the heels of new initiatives undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security to utilize U.S. spy satellites for domestic “law enforcement and counterterrorism” investigations.

According to Nick Juliano,

DHS plans to create a new office that would expand law enforcement and other civilian agencies’ access to data gathered by powerful intelligence and military satellites orbiting the earth. The National Applications Office [NAO] will oversee who can access such satellite data, which is typically used to monitor climate change and track hurricane damage, among other uses.

DHS still has not laid out legal frameworks or standard operating procedures for the office, according to a letter from three members of the House Homeland Security Committee.4

First floated last August, then delayed over civil liberties concerns, DHS is now moving full speed ahead with the project. In a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, Reps. Bennie G. Thompson, Jane Harman and Christopher P. Carney wrote, “merely mentioning Posse Comitatus and other laws in the NAO Charter does not provide needed assurances that the Department will not transform NAO into a domestic spying platform.”

Tepid protests by congressional Democrats who have systematically enabled these repressive measures by granting unlimited budgetary increases to Bushist spymasters, will have virtually no effect on an administration hell-bent on turning the entire country into a “free spy zone.”

  1. Ellen Nakashima, “FBI Transfers via Telecoms Questioned,” Washington Post, Tuesday, April 8, 2008; A03. []
  2. For an historical analysis of CALEA’s civil liberties implications see: “Big Brother in the Wires: Wiretapping in the Digital Age,” ACLU, March 1, 1998. []
  3. Mark Klein, “Reject Amnesty for Telecoms,” Electronic Frontier Foundation. []
  4. Nick Juliano, “DHS Ignores Civil Liberties in Domestic Spy Satellite Plan, Lawmakers Say,” The Raw Story, Monday, April 7, 2008. []
Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His articles are published in many venues. He is the editor of Police State America: U.S. Military "Civil Disturbance" Planning, distributed by AK Press. Read other articles by Tom, or visit Tom's website.

14 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. hp said on April 12th, 2008 at 9:47am #

    Tom, could you speak up a bit? I didn’t quite get that last part…

  2. Tom Burghardt said on April 12th, 2008 at 1:46pm #

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking, hp. My point in the last graph was that congressional Democrats have been complicit with Bush regime moves to lift all restrictions on domestic surveillance and military ops.

  3. catherine said on April 12th, 2008 at 4:14pm #

    Tom, I think hp is making a funny. He’s asking you to speak up, so that your tapped voice transmissions can be more easily heard by Big Brother.

    If only it were funny, though we must keep laughing and mocking and in general refusing to let them control us through fear.

  4. Tom Burghardt said on April 12th, 2008 at 7:02pm #

    Duh! Better hit over the head with a mallet, next time! 😉

    I’m afraid, Catherine, the state’s heard my voice transmissions all-too-clearly over the years. As far as I’m personally concerned, its already too late! 😉

    My view is concise: fuck ’em! 🙂

  5. Tom Burghardt said on April 12th, 2008 at 7:03pm #

    Duh! Better hit me over the head with a mallet, next time, hp! 😉

    I’m afraid, Catherine, the state’s heard my voice transmissions all-too-clearly over the years. As far as I’m personally concerned, its already too late! 😉

    But my view o the question is clear and concise: fuck ’em! 🙂

  6. Tom Burghardt said on April 12th, 2008 at 7:04pm #

    Duh! Better hit me over the head with a mallet, next time, hp! 😉

    I’m afraid, Catherine, the state’s heard my voice transmissions all-too-clearly over the years. As far as I’m personally concerned, its already too late! 😉

    But my view on the question is clear and concise: fuck ’em! 🙂

  7. Tom Burghardt said on April 12th, 2008 at 7:08pm #

    Sorry about the multiple comments, way too much wine and way too much barbeque on this beautiful northern California spring day! 🙂

  8. evie said on April 13th, 2008 at 5:54am #

    Isn’t it great the mainstream media, like WaPo, tells us what BigBrother can do, and non-profit donation-funded foundations have sprung up like flowers on cow patties, to protect and inform us.

    I will no longer be using my phone or internet to discuss a coup d’état.

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 13th, 2008 at 9:55am #

    Hi, Tom. I saw this piece at White Light Black Light on April 9, and posted a comment about it. Posting there is almost prohibitively complicated if you don’t have a website, and very few articles there have comments. Unlike here at DV. However, I was very interested in hearing your response to my WLBL post and would feel remiss not to repeat it here:

    “I enjoyed this, Tom, and was a little surprised not to see it at Dissident Voice. Uncovering this shit that is happening now, is a (the?) most important thing. But reading your words: “Since 1994…the…CALEA (established it as) telecommunications carrier’s (sic) duty to cooperate…for Law Enforcement purposes, and for OTHER PURPOSES” (your emphasis), I have to wonder: how long? and how widespread?

    That is, is the operative limitation on how far back this shit goes, and can be discovered, technology or secrecy?

    For that matter, is what I used to believe was NECESSARY — “Imagine the truth” — necessary in regards to the subject of spying on Americans.

    Lloyd Rowsey”

  10. Tom Burghardt said on April 13th, 2008 at 11:22am #

    Hi Lloyd,

    I’m not familiar with that page… I don’t mind if others post my articles, although permission and/or notice that they did would be nice! 😉

    DV posts or doesn’t post at their discretion… I certainly appreciate it when they do.

    As far as CALEA goes, it became operative in 1994 when the law was passed. How far back does domestic spying go? Well, in my opinion, “security” ops such as COINTELPRO and/or the NSA’s ECHELON never ended. More troubling is the latest trend: intelligence/security outsourcing to private corporations.

    “Imagine the truth”? Well, as we all know: “The Truth is Out There”! 🙂

  11. hp said on April 13th, 2008 at 3:39pm #

    My brother, who is in NI, once told me; “there are no secrets, it’s just that hardly anyone gives a fuck.”

  12. Andres Kargar said on April 13th, 2008 at 11:06pm #

    By now, only simpletons think that the Bush regime is spending billions of our tax dollars on this war of terror to catch a handful of Middle Eastern so-called terrorists.

    The truth is that, as far as America’s owning classes are concerned, the real subversives in this struggle are the American people. Despite such repressive apparatus as the police force, prisons, internment camps, etc., those in power realize that a good deal of their projection of mass control is smoke and mirrors achieved with the full collaboration of the corporate media which they own. Yes, they are scared to death of common, ordinary Americans and use all means at their disposal to keep an eye on them, particularly in times of political / economic crises.

  13. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 16th, 2008 at 7:45am #

    hp. I would expect a media person like Tom to not even understand my objection/question. After all, there’s apparently an investigative-academic problem with believing the most consequential facts are secret.

    And Tom. I would expect a National Intelligence (NI, right?) person to attribute to public laziness what in fact secrecy (National Intelligence) accomplishes.

    But the two are mutually contradictory, I hope one of you at least has the intelligence to grasp. So which is it? In your biased and evidently not very well-researched or thought-thru opinions?

  14. joe said on January 14th, 2009 at 3:54pm #

    what do the fbi need to be able to spy on you?I am a completly inncocent man but i feel my fuckin privacy is being invaded and i am very upset. do they spy on the average person and can they use there stupid cameras in a court and use them against you? The worst thing i used to do is smoke a little weed and they probably no that but dont care. what kind of criminal activities(weed smoking) do they need to know to get a warrant to spy on you??