By Jim Popkin, NBC News Senior Investigative Producer
Take the house, pictured below, which is located directly across the street from the embassy of one of our former Cold War adversaries. Most of the time, the large skylights in the attic of the house appear opaque, as seen here:
Candid camerasBut in the late afternoon, when the sun sinks low, it shines through those skylights like a movie-theater searchlight. Even a 10-year-old gumshoe can see what’s hiding in the attic:
Behind the three skylights, tucked behind black fabric, are three video cameras. Their lenses are trained on the embassy across the street. Passersby on the sidewalk below can see the lenses sparkling in the sunlight, and so, presumably, can the former Cold Warriors just across the street.
It’s no surprise that there’s close surveillance of foreign embassies inside the U.S. The FBI employs hundreds of counter-intelligence agents and employees, to keep an eye on friends and foes alike. Journalists have reported on the surveillance programs for decades. Back in 1988, for example, author Ronald Kessler described in “Spy vs. Spy” how the FBI “takes photographs of everyone walking down the street in both directions in front of” selected foreign embassies to catch spies and potential traitors on camera. “Anyone walking near the embassy is on film,” Kessler wrote.
Nonetheless, you’d think the Bureau would be a little more careful about safeguarding its own safehouse, and not blowing the cover of its real-life Bobby Bureaus.
Bungled tradecraft?How do I know it’s an FBI facility? A simple web search confirmed it.
From my desk, I plugged the house’s street address into a commercial database that NBC and many media organizations use - legally, of course - to conduct public-records searches. In about 30 seconds, and for just about $2 in fees, I learned the names of three probable residents of the house.
One of the residents had helpfully provided his employer’s name. There it was in black and white: “Company: FBI.”
But that’s not all. Under the job-title section, this same FBI employee is described as “Clerk Really a Spy.” [I edited out his name, below.]
Holy Efrem Zimbalist, Jr!
My curiosity piqued, I called the FBI employee, a.k.a. “really a spy,” to ask about this apparent breach of basic tradecraft. He’s working now out of the FBI’s Memphis Field Office as a surveillance specialist, and didn’t seem thrilled with the call. He didn’t deny having lived at the D.C. house, but quickly passed me to his local FBI media representative. The FBI spokesman in Memphis told me he couldn’t comment, other than to inform me that the employee worked for the Bureau but not as a Special Agent.
In fairness to “really a spy,” he probably never intentionally listed his employer or his job title in the commercial database. Like most public-records databases, it likely just sucked up some application or paperwork the FBI employee had filled out years ago and now has saved it forever. Why he ever apparently joked that his job was “really a spy” is a separate issue.
The ease in identifying an FBI spyhouse and one of the Bureau’s counter-espionage employees is reminiscent of some investigative reporting done by the Chicago Tribune two years ago. Tribune reporter John Crewdson and a researcher revealed in their March 12, 2006, article that they had identified the locations of two dozen CIA safehouses and covert workplaces in the United States, plus the names of 2,600 CIA employees. Their trick? They had done a series of inexpensive, overlapping Internet searches, scooping up supposedly secret addresses from public-record databases.
The FBI would not comment on this story. But out of an abundance of caution, and on the advice of several senior U.S. officials, NBC News has decided not to reveal the address of the FBI house or to name the FBI employee. The officials caution that identifying the hapless employee and his former stakeout location could compromise future investigations. Even though many of the sources said it’s a certainty that officials at the nearby embassy “made” the FBI safehouse years ago, NBC News reasoned that we could tell this story without identifying the address, the employee or even the embassy in question.
I first made the FBI aware of this apparent tradecraft bungle more than a month ago. At last check, the G-Men hadn’t hidden the attic video cameras. And the commercial database still lists the FBI employee as “really a spy.”
Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr
Transit authorities in cities across the country are quietly installing microphone-enabled surveillance systems on public buses that would give them the ability to record and store private conversations, according to documents obtained by a news outlet.
The systems are being installed in San Francisco, Baltimore, and other cities with funding from the Department of Homeland Security in some cases, according to the Daily, which obtained copies of contracts, procurement requests, specs and other documents.
The use of the equipment raises serious questions about eavesdropping without a warrant, particularly since recordings of passengers could be obtained and used by law enforcement agencies.
It also raises questions about security, since the IP audio-video systems can be accessed remotely via a built-in web server (.pdf), and can be combined with GPS data to track the movement of buses and passengers throughout the city.
The RoadRecorder 7000 surveillance system being marketed for use on public buses consists of a high-definition IP camera and audio recording system that can be configured remotely via built-in web server.
According to the product pamphlet for the RoadRecorder 7000 system made by SafetyVision (.pdf), “Remote connectivity to the RoadRecorder 7000 NVR can be established via the Gigabit Ethernet port or the built-in 3G modem. A robust software ecosystem including LiveTrax vehicle tracking and video streaming service combined with SafetyNet central management system allows authorized users to check health status, create custom alerts, track vehicles, automate event downloads and much more.”
The systems use cables or WiFi to pair audio conversations with camera images in order to produce synchronous recordings. Audio and video can be monitored in real-time, but are also stored onboard in blackbox-like devices, generally for 30 days, for later retrieval. Four to six cameras with mics are generally installed throughout a bus, including one near the driver and one on the exterior of the bus.
Saturday, December 22 2012
FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund December 22, 2012
The PCJF has obtained heavily redacted documents showing that FBI offices and agents around the country were in high gear conducting surveillance against the movement even as early as August 2011, a month prior to the establishment of the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park and other Occupy actions around the country.
“This production, which we believe is just the tip of the iceberg, is a window into the nationwide scope of the FBI’s surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protestors organizing with the Occupy movement,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF). “These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity. These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”
“The documents are heavily redacted, and it is clear from the production that the FBI is withholding far more material. We are filing an appeal challenging this response and demanding full disclosure to the public of the records of this operation,” stated Heather Benno, staff attorney with the PCJF.
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