More NSA ‘revelations’:
The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries, they said.
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.
The government’s collection and analysis of phone and Internet traffic have raised questions among some law enforcement and judicial officials familiar with the program. One issue of concern to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has reviewed some separate warrant applications growing out of the N.S.A.’s surveillance program, is whether the court has legal authority over calls outside the United States that happen to pass through American-based telephonic “switches,” according to officials familiar with the matter.
Look- I can not be the only person who ever read the Puzzle Palace in the 90’s. I am not saying I like this, but the idea that this is ‘news’ is, well, silly. I just sort of assumed this was the sort of thing the NSA did, and was why it was there. I thought everyone knew that the NSA engaged in widespread data mining of this type.
Everyone reading this has heard the stories (urban legends? rumors?) that if you say certain ‘code words’ on the phone like ‘bomb,’ or ‘White House,’ it would be detected by some super secret program at NSA. It has been the grist for dozens of movies. I remember a 60 Minutes piece several years back when they talked about Echelon and all those b ig dome/satellite things in Europe. All my geek friends would talk about the computing power at NSA, and whether or not they actually could break PGP 64 bit encryption and stuff like that (again, I may be off on the technical details, but I remember conversations about this).
I guess my point is that pretending this is a surprise, or anything new, seems to me to be a touch disingenuous. Again, this is an issue that I have not followed closely, so if this has been taken to new levels or something, fine, fill me in. But everyone I know is aware this has been going on for a while, and this really is not surprising or shocking to me, and I certainly do not, at this point, think this Administration is doing anything different from previous administrations. In fact, I thought one of the chief complaints about NSA was that it was a ‘secret’ government to itself, regardless of who the elected government was. Again, if I am wrong, let me know.
I should probably also note that unless I am wrong about the scope of this NSA operation, and people are not freaking out over something that is widely known, people are REALLY going to freak the F–K out when they finally learn what domestic data mining companies (like, say Choicepoint) know about you and your behaviors and activities.
Again, if I am wrong about all this, let me know.
*** Update ***
Interesting piece by William Arkin here:
Massive amounts of collected data — actual intercepts of phone calls, e-mails, etc. — together with “transaction” data — travel or credit card records or telephone or Internet service provider logs — are mixed through a mind-boggling array of government and private sector software programs to look for potential matches.
In discussing the “Able Danger” program, I previously described how information targeters began data mining in the 1990’s to discover new patterns of indicators to identify events of interest when they could not be directly observed. The theory is that data mining techniques applied to the intelligence take, combined with massive “transaction” databases, can uncover clandestine relationships or activities.
In Section B above, when the law says “the search does not use personal identifiers of a specific individual or does not utilize inputs that appear on their face to identify or be associated with a specified individual to acquire information,” I take it to mean the new computer-based data mining isn’t looking for an individual per se, it is looking at information about all individuals (at least all who make international telephone calls or send e-mails overseas or travel to foreign countries according to the government) to select individuals who may be worthy of a closer look.
In other words, with the digitization of everything and new computer and software capabilities, the government couldn’t go to the Court or the Congress and say, “hey, we’d like to monitor everyone on a fishing expedition to find the next Mohamed Atta.”
It’s one conceivable explanation. If this in fact is what the NSA has been doing since 9/11, perhaps Congress should figure out: one, whether it’s legal; and two, how it can be done consistent with the Privacy Act and the Fourth Amendment.
More relevant stuff as I find it.
*** Update ***
Seth from The World According to Pooh emails:
Nuance certainly plays well, huh? [Ed- No kidding.] Anyway, I thought it might help you out if I could crystallize what this whole NSA thing boils down to. By way of preface, I am a lawyer, and have done a fair bit of reading on the subject, but it is far from certain how much of this would play out. Though some of the claims advanced by the admin, frankly suck,
The “my lawyer said it was ok” argument carries no weight with me because how it works is, you ask your lawyer “how do I get away with this” and he makes the best argument, Of course they can say “I asked for an objective appraisal,” to which I respond “did Gonzales and Miers get where they are by NOT telling the boss what he wants to hear? (not a fault limited to W’s admin, natch) Conversely, ask the folks in the Civil Rights Division how well ‘objective’ analysis is received.
Anyway, the administration has an excellent argument that it can conduct wireless surveillance of foreign operatives. In fact, that’s a lock under FISA. Under Hamdi (which I don’t find compelling, but it’s not ridiculous, and is also the Law), warrantless surveillance on ‘terrorist operatives’ is probably legal also. Warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens NOT terrorist operatives is still in fact a felony. (The less said about the argument that AUMF repeals FISA, the better. It’s that bad on Constitutional, legal and prudential grounds.)
So, we have an issue here in that if the President is indeed spying solely on those who are ‘bad’ then he has no problem. However, without anything ensuring that those people are in fact arguably ‘bad’, there are no meaningful assurances that he isn’t spying on you or me (and since the program is ‘secret’ and we are not likely to be criminally prosecuted, finding out we are being snooped is going to be a bitch.)
This leads to an intractable problem – the President has plenary power to spy on actual terrorists, but no power to spy on anyone else (absent PC). That plenary power means that it is not subject to review. But ensuring he does not EXCEED that power necessarily subjects the power to review. If the President truly wishes to push his power to the edge on this, it creates a Constitutional controversy not seen since probably reconstruction (or maybe the New Deal rise of the administrative state). Now that may not seem like a big deal to the layperson, but it scares the crap out of me, and is certainly not something that should happen behind closed doors.