25 June 2006
Excerpted from: THE ONE PERCENT DOCTRINE: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, Ron Suskind, 2006.
At noon on September 13, a passing agent ducked his head into Dennis Lormel's office. He said that someone had called from the Omaha FBI office. A company named First Data Corporation, with a huge processing facility out there, wanted to help in any way it could. A red-eyed Lormel looked up from his desk. "Oh, that's big," he said, breaking into a weary smile. "That could be very, very big."
The son of a New York City cop, Lormel had spent two decades working the financial angle of some of the Bureau's biggest cases, from corrupt congressmen in the Abscam scandal, to allegations of Billy Carter being bribed by Libyans, to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, the mother of all international bank frauds.
First Data is one of the world's largest processors of credit card transactions, a company with $6.5 billion in revenues and a global reach. Lormel knew there would be scores of names to check, starting with the nineteen hijackers, and that each name would produce several hits -- false positives -- that would then have to be checked against the place and time specifics of spending histories. There would be civil liberty issues -- legally, each crecit card search demanded a warrant. There might not be time for that; another attack might be on the way.
But Lormel also knew something most of the agents running sleepless around FBI headquarters two days after 9/11 didn't know -- First Data was not only the world's leading credit card processor -- an extraordinary ally at this moment. "Inside that company," he told the young agent, "is a gem."
The old telegraph company was the engine of a technological revolution many generations removed from the present. Its heyday was in the 1850s, when it began stringing wire cables across the Northeast, then the first transcontinental cable in 1861. Five years later, those cables carried trading on the New York Stock Exchange to cities up and down the East Coast on "tickers." It was hailed as a miracle.
The world moved on. But many of the twenty-two nations in the Arab world still have a foot planted in this past. Western Union, with nearly $2.7 billion in revenue, remains a destination for a wide slice of the Arab world's 300 million residents. In some of the less favored parts of the globe, the only way to wire funds is the old-fashioned way. You bring your money to the Western Union office. You hand it over. They count it. And soon, transmission is made to another of the company's offices, a hot flash of cold cash.
The so-called "war on terror" is about unlikely twists, strange alliances, about things you least expect. The unexpected is, in fact, what catches a swiftly adaptable enemy -- namely, a global village of Islamic terrorists -- by surprise. Lormel is a financial wizard, who talks like a longshoreman, knows how to play rough, and has a fine-tuned capacity to think like his prey -- a perfect character for a moment that demands innovation. The previous night, he'd arrived home for dinner after wandering in a daydream through a frantic FBI headquarters for much of the day. He told his wife, Molly, "I figured a lot of stuff out . . . we need a massive integrated approach to this -- the whole government working together -- and we can wrap them up, all of them, the bastards. There's a lot we can do now on the financial side that we could never do before. If, for once, we just get everyone organized."
Now, sitting in his office, Lormel told the young agent to go get him a number for First Data, and he chewed over an idea: "We need to turn this company into a deadly weapon."
At the massive Omaha processing center for First Data, Bob Mueller's troops had settled in. They were deep inside a Fortune 500 company, a place where federal agents had never roamed so freely, prowling through First Data's massive computer banks. The company, with its headquarters in Denver, accounts far nearly half of U.S. charge volume, and is involved in charging activity in countries around the world.
In these early days of panic and fear ofa "second wave" attack that span was seen as a virtue. There was, after all so much to check, starting with the names of all the hijackers. Each Atta and Hanjour, around the world, needed to be checked, and followed. Billing addresses were matched with charging history, locations matched with dates. Is this the right Atta, or another one? If he's the right one, then his spending could create the spine of a thousand companion searches, nightflares lighting a dark path. One might illuminate the path of another known terrorist, or a financier, or a safe house, or a place that terrorists frequent. At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.
To understand this moment, and what was driving the actions -- some of which could infringe upon civil liberties and privacy rights -- it is important to understand how little the U.S. counterterrorism effort had, at this point, to rely on and how desperate they were. There was not one significant human intelligence, or humint, source inside the al Qaeda operation. There was no evidence of al Qaeda operatives, or supporters, inside the United States. The Atta team of nineteen had managed to enter the country, operate within it, communicate with al Qaeda leaders, and execute the worst domestic attack in U.S. history, and investigators still didn't know how!
U.S. officials, in both law enforcement and intelligence, were essentially blind and waiting, with dread, for a "second wave." The thinking was to act first, work out logistics later. Yet when FBI offtcials first sat down with First Data in the days after the company had called the bureau, they felt that they had some precedents to rely on.
There is a long history of American companies, otten large, notable companies, working in secret concert with the U.S. government. Western Union, in fact, had been at the front of that procession. A company Western Union bought in the 1860s called the American Telegraph Company banned messages in cipher during the Civil War at the behest of the War Department. During World War II, all U.S. telegraph companies forwarded copies of international cables to the federal government. The program, "Operation Shamrock," continued after the war and was unknown to Congress and top intelligence offtcials.
Every day, a courier would leave NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, and board a train for New York City. The clerk would copy onto magnetic tape all international telegrams from the day betore that had been sent by three major companies -- ITT, RCA Global, and Western Union -- and bring the tape back to Maryland for analysts to pore over. This collection of foreign intelligence also involved U.S. citizens and was blocked when it was uncovered, along with other intelligence abuses, during post-Watergate congressional investigations of CIA in the mid-seventies. Shamrock, and similar abuses in the wiretapping of U.S. citizens -- some of whom were opponents of the Vietnam War -- was the impetus for the passage of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, and the creation of the so-called "FISA Court." Congress determined that any surveillance involving a U.S. citizen would have to be reviewed and approved by the court. The law was graciously written, allowing for a three-day lag time, so that eavesdropping could be authorized by the President in an emergency and reviewed later. For the next hventy years, the court was, essentially, a rubber stamp -- handling nineteen thousand applications in its history, and refusing only five.
In White House strategy sessions in September and October of 2001, officials from FBI, CIA, and NSA -- in consultation always with the Vice President -- looked in desperation at what tools might be available for the unfolding battle. It broke into two large sectors: telecommunications and finances. The two would fit together, like the clasp ofleft and right hand, to lay the toundations of a worldwide matrix.
On one side was NSA, which had been working to expand and perfect its sigint capabilities in an era of galloping communications technology. By 2001, U.S. citizens made approximately 1.2 billion landline calls a day and 800 million cell phone calls. E-mails had been growing by a trillion a year for the past five years. This raging river of noise and digitalia gets channeled through the huge telecommunications "switches" of companies such as Global Crossing, Worldcom, AT&T. Yet their switches in the United States handle more than just this country's traffic. Modern communications travel at all but unfathomable speeds across tbe globe to find the fastest path to their destination. That means a call -- or e-mail -- between France and Spain may pass though Oregon: and digital packets, shooting through the network, may carry a bundle of messages from Islamabad and Israel. Borders, in this realm, are meaningless; location matters not at all. NSA black boxes sitting on a wide array of telecom switches in the tall of 2001 could gather calls and e-mails from much of the planet. Which is what they did, as NSA computer technicians furiously worked to perfcct the algorithms for "search and sort" engines to manage the flow. This is what was explained to each party's leaders and representatives on both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in October 2001 -- four from each party, the so-called "gang of eight." According to reports of several attendees at these briefings, administration officials explained that the system would be used to hunt known or probable terrorists, their supporters, and their financiers. It could also handle broadly wrought searches, like massive keyword searches for those who were speaking about terrorist operations and as was already under way -- all calls between the United States and Afghanistan. Some concern was voiced by congressional Democrats about civil liberties, but informed questions were difficult to pose: the program was so secret that they couldn't even consult their staffs.
That same month, October, Bush signed a secret presidential order allowing the NSA, with its telecom helpers, to carry forward what had already begun and continue to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens. The FISA Court was ignored. The specific legislation reads that the court will be the "exclusive" arbiter of issues penaining to domestic surveillance of agents of "a foreign power." It would, no doubt, have proven logisticaJly challenging for the administration to work with the court -- creating, essentially, warrant applications to eavesdrop on the communications of thousands of U.S. citizens being surveyed by the "blind eye" of the NSA's sleepless computers, some of which were citizen-to-citizen caJls. Clearly, a smaller but significant number of Americans were graduating to higher categories of surveillance based on what they did or said. In fact, the administration didn't consult the court on that smaller number, either. According to an intelligence source with intimate knowledge of the NSA program and these early days: "The thinking was that going to the FISA Court, or trying to alter the 1978 act, would somehow expose, with leaks, or just from questions that we'd have to answer, what our system's capabilities were. Once you take that first step, the rest falls into place -- including a fear that if we just talked to FISA about the smaller subset that drew our increased interest they'd feel obligated to trace the legal issues to the huge pool of level-one searches. Either way, we just went ahead." That was one part of the worldwide matrix, the communications side -- what people said or wrote. The other side was what they did.
That, in large measure, meant what they bought, where they bought it, and, generally, where they brought it home. For this, the administration relied heavily on First Data. Covenants with other credit card processors in the United States and abroad meant that -- much like the large telecom switches -- everything could be invisibly blended; a borderless world of transactions. Western Union had similar sharing arrangements for wire transfers, which often involve banks and various financial institutions. To clear or trace transactions, large companies generally have access to one another's back office processing units. It's all interconnected. You just need a universal passport -- like the one Western Union possesses.
Once these two parts, two rivers, were merged after 9/11, the data rose to flood stage. Mil1ions of communications dispatches from NSA swamped CIA and FBI. The former did its own frantic sifting -- something CIA automatically does, looking for that actionable bit of gold. FBI doesn't sift well. It's oriented to gather evidence for prosecution -- every bit, every drop, is saved, and doled out for a next step. Much of the flow went through FBI, with key information brought to the First Data computers -- FBI's own in-house search engine. In the first few weeks after the attacks, thousands of financial searches were conducted based on initial communications leads from NSA. They cascaded into one subset, then another, of increasing interest, priority . . . and effort, by agents rushing, first, to produce paper. In the FBI, every action must be "papered." That means documented in some legally defendable fashion -- something worthy, if need be, of an appearance in court.
The legal umbrella, as of October 26, was the newly passed USA Patriot Act. The act allowed for a vast expansion of surveillance within the United States, including the searching of financial and personal records. and "sneak and peak" provisions, permitting citizens to have their activities monitored without their knowledge.
The favored mechanism used by FBI was something called the "national security letter," a legal figleaf created for espionage and terrorism investigations in the 1970s as a way to get around consumer privacy laws. It allowed the FBI to review the customer records of suspected foreign agents secretly. On balance, maybe a few hundred would be issued annually.
After 9/11 Justice Department lawyers suggested that the letters be used in a new, expanded way. They noted that the letters could be issued on the simplest, thinnest suspicion -- no real evidence needed.
An NSA hit was plenty. Scores of top managers, including special agents in charge of many field offices, could issue the letters. And they issued them in a flurry -- at a rate of thousands a month -- snatched and used like tissues during cold season.
Not that there weren't good old-fashioned subpoenas as well. There were. Thousands were issued, approved by the fistful, at the federal court in Omaha. A special FBI-First Data facility was soon set up near the company's processing center, a place where agents and company technicians could commune and tap into the great computers -- and beyond, into the world's financial system -- in respectful sanctity. Omaha, for a time, produced more subpoenas than any other courthouse in America.
As to sensitivities of congressional oversight of this vast enterprise, a moment in late October is revealing.
Members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees entered a secure room in the Capitol for a briefing on the "war on terror." Officials from Justice, Treasury, CIA and FBI were due to testify about the "financial war." [FBI official] Dennis Lormel hovered in the back of the empty gallery, talking to a colleague. There was a delay -- a Senate vote was holding things up.
He'd be going third or fourth. With him on the panel would be a top financial enforcement official from Treasury named Jim Gurule, who had jurisdiction over the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC. As a peace offering of sorts -- since First Data was an FBI partner -- Lormel had let some officials of the Secret Service, which handles credit card fraud, come by First Data. They were, after all, experts in trolling the planet of card charges.
Lormel squinted from a distance as he watched Gurule begin to set up. There was an easel. Gurule unsheathed a visual aid for his presentation: a large chart showing how First Data was accessing and organizing financial information across the globe.
Lormel, all 220 pounds, rushed him from across the roorn. "Are you fuckin' crazy? Get that sign out of here. No one is supposed to know about this. And, Jesus, it isn't even a Treasury operation!" Gurule was stunned. He took down the poster and hustled it out of the room.
Congressional oversight of covert activities is a principle that distinguishes the United States from other countries. It is an ideal that is central to the checks and balances -- the counteracting ambitions, as Madison and others had attested -- that prevent abuses of power. In this case. and scores of others, those fighting the "war on terror" decided it was an unaffordable luxury.
In that day's testimony -- and many to follow -- no one uttered the name First Data.
And so a vast search-and-seizure machine, with a financial body and a communications head, was constructed and fired up to match the challenges of this man-on-man war.
History will ultimately judge that machine, and those who encouraged it to be built -- from the President on down -- against words written with ink quills more than two centuries ago. The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution ensures that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violatcd, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
It is often called the most forcefully written of the amendments.
You can feel the founders' ardor, a don't-tread-on-me fierceness of spirit in the declarative phrasing. They had, after all, just completed a successful insurgency against the controlling authority of Great Britain; they were used to being "violated" in Boston and Philadelphia, Concord and Hoboken, and to not being "secure in their persons." The words "probable cause" are among the most oft-spoken and colloquial of any in the document: they regulate, artfully, the collision point between citizens and their government under the proposition that reasonable people will be able to agree, for the most part, on that standard.
Whether reasonable people agree or not with this particular course of action -- and the expansion of presidential authority it entails -- will be debated for years; maybe, even, for as long as the so-called "war on terror" lasts. What is known and indisputable? As this machine searched the landscape, it swept up the suspicious, or simply the unfortunate, by the stadiumful and caught almost no one who was actually a danger to America.
[At a meeting with FBI, CIA and Western Union at CIA headquarters.]
Lormel talked about what a good friend Western Union has been since 9/11. Nervous Phil [a pseudonym] talked a bit about what might be done going forward. Western Union had twelve thousand offices across the globe, thirteen hundred in Pakistan alone. There was no country more important in battling the terrorists.
Everyone nodded, a show of consensus, until one of the Western Union executives had something to say.
He looked at Tenet. "Here's my concern," he said. "If it seems that Western Union is a global front for the CIA, we'll go out of business."
Tenet leaned forward in his chair and dropped his ace.
"I know we're asking a lot," he said. "But this country is in a fight for its survival. What I'm asking is that you and your company be patriots."
After that, it was all about logistics.
Two weeks after Western Union officials met with Tenet, [head of Israel's Shin Bet] Dichter gave the United States a piece of intelligence to begin the process: the name of a supporter of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who was expected to wire money from Lebanon to a point somewhere in Israel. Early in April, Western Union's offices in Lebanon received the expected order. The Terrorism Section of the Department of Justice, on twnety-four hour call, kicked into gear. In an arrangement with the U.S. Federal Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, based in Alexandria, they issued an instantaneous subpoena. It allowed Western Union -- a U.S.-based company -- to notify FBI and CIA about which location the money was being wired to, and who was picking it up. All of it occurred in minutes. Israeli intelligence officers were hailed. They raced, silently to the right Western Union office in Hebron, and then followed the PIJ courier to his safe house in the West Bank. From, there, electronic surveillance equipment quickly tracked communications to other cells in the Palestinian territories.
Two further wire transfers were targeted in early May. And, each time, the golden disclosure was handed by the U.S. government to Israeli forces, altering the balance of power in a low-grade war.