History Commons Groups

July 28, 2008

Bob Woodward on Main Core

Filed under: Civil Liberties,Complete 911 Timeline — kevinfenton @ 2:41 pm
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Reading Bob Woodwards’s 2006 book State of Denial some time ago one passage immediately leaped out at me. It was about domestic intelligence gathering by the CIA and NSA—beginning before 9/11—and Woodward had seen fit to throw it in, pretty much as a sidebar, on pages 323-325. I turned it into two entries in the 9/11 Timeline, After July 1997: CIA Obtains Domestic Call and Financial Information to Support ‘Black Ops’ and (2003 and After): Corporate CEOs Balk at Providing Customer Information to Three US Intelligence Agencies. It was fairly clear that this was the tip of the iceberg and that there was a lot more to come out; I was interested because I thought it must be related to the information we have about the NSA in the Yemen hub category.

Recently, three articles have been published, in the Wall Street Journal, Radar and Salon, about a murky government database called Main Core, which is somehow linked to the near-mythical PROMIS system, Oliver North, Continuity of Government (including Cheney, Rumsfeld and David Addington), internment camps, and just about anything you can think off. It seems that the passage in Woodward’s book must be related to Main Core in some way–it refers to the CIA and NSA obtaining access to “databanks from the American telecommunications and financial institutions.” Although Woodward does not name the system he is referring to, it is the first apparent mention (2006) of this I have found in the media. I have a vague intention of blogging this more thoroughly at some point in the not-too-distant future, but what I would like to do here is just type in the passage from Woodward’s book. It starts with a section about White House counterterrorism adviser Francis Townsend.

Townsend had a more delicate counterterrorism issue to mediate. Over the years, Tenet had negotiated agreements with telecommunications and financial institutions to get access to certain telephone, Internet and financial records related to “black” intelligence operations. Tenet personally made most of the arrangements with the various CEOs of the companies. They were very secret, among the most sensitive arrangements, and based largely on informal understandings. Tenet had been very good at this, playing the patriot card and asking CEOs to help on matters of national security.

After 9/11, as the FBI got more and more involved in counterterrorism operations in the United States, their agents often went to the corporations with subpoenas to obtain the same or similar telephone, Internet or financial records. In addition, the new Department of Homeland Security, which had been created in late 2002 to bring together 22 federal agencies as diverse as Customs, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service, wanted in on this action.

The CEO’s began saying, look, we’ll do this once but not three times. The FBI’s formal subpoenas tended to trump the other efforts.

The main conflict was between the FBI and the CIA. Part of the arrangement Tenet had made involved the CIA’s National Resources Division, which had personnel stationed in a dozen major US cities so that the CIA could interview and recruit foreigners visiting the United States. The NRs, as they were called, apparently were involved in making arrangements so other intelligence agencies, such as the National Security Agency, could get access to the information and records the corporate CEOs had agreed to provide.

The conflict was so intense that Townsend called FBI Director Robert Mueller and acting CIA Director John McLaughlin to the White House and asked them to resolve the conflicts. She then met periodically with them until each appointed a senior official to coordinate so that the corporations were not bombarded with multiple requests.

It raised a number of serious legal questions. The CIA was forbidden by law from gathering intelligence in the United States. One official I spoke with said that the arrangements made by Tenet gave access only to passive databanks from the American telecommunications and financial institutions. To gather specific information about specific individuals required either subpoenas, court-authorized FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrants or operations under the controversial executive order signed by President Bush after 9/11 called the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone or internet communications to or from suspected al Qaeda operatives or their affiliates.

Nonetheless, the Tenet arrangements were part of the murky world of intelligence gathering in the 21st century that raised serious civil liberties questions and also demonstrated that the laws had not kept pace with technology.


  1. This is going to be a hot topic of coverage in the weeks to come. It has not yet been thoroughly explored on the Commons. If you haven’t begun contributing yet, this is a good place to start!

    Comment by Max — July 29, 2008 @ 1:49 am | Reply

  2. Interesting that Woodward chose to treat this potentially explosive topic as a sidebar. It goes along with work I was doing earlier tonight on the Valerie Plame Wilson case, where Woodward’s apparent elitism and Washington “insider” status led him to dismiss the Plame affair–even though he himself was a minor player.

    Comment by Max — July 29, 2008 @ 1:51 am | Reply

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