NSA Accidentally Listened to Domestic Calls

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report that the NSA inadvertantly captured some domestic-only calls in its surveillance of international terrorists, despite strict protocols against doing so.

A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say.

The officials say the National Security Agency’s interception of a small number of communications between people within the United States was apparently accidental, and was caused by technical glitches at the National Security Agency in determining whether a communication was in fact “international.”

Telecommunications experts say the issue points up troubling logistical questions about the program. At a time when communications networks are increasingly globalized, it is sometimes difficult even for the N.S.A. to determine whether someone is inside or outside the United States when making a cellphone call or sending an e-mail message. As a result, people that the security agency may think are outside the United States are actually on American soil.

While I had not thought about this possibility, it is obvious upon even quick reflection. After all, police officers occasionally search the wrong home even though they collected the evidence themselves and have written instructions on where to go. Mistakes happen in human endeavors and they are likely to be magnified in a large program relying on electronic data.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rodney Dill says:

    Inadvertantly making international calls is problematic for me working here in Dearborn, MI.
    I’m close enough to Canada that If I leave my cell phone on “Roam” I might connect via a Canadian cell tower and then be calling back to the US and incurring huge, (as opposed to already included) charges.

  2. M. Murcek says:

    Of course, when it suits the left’s purposes, there’s no such thing as an “honest” mistake. Perfection is the only standard they’ll accept. Unless it’s someone like, say, Bill Clinton making the mistake.

    Then it’s OK.

    Because “that’s different…”

  3. legion says:

    I’m no telco guy, but I was under the impression that there has been enormous pressure on cell phone companies to put geolocation functions into their systems for 911 usage. Was that capability used to try & cut the ‘risk level’ in these taps?

  4. Rodney Dill says:

    The GPS angle at best only applies to the “known” side of the call. Also if the GPS is working in the US, why wiretap at all, just go pick the target up.

  5. Jonk says:

    As long as the errors are made in good faith and the data destroyed upon discovery of the error, no harm, no foul.

    It happens in everyday life. How many faxes have you gotten at your home or office with personal info that you should not have access to? What do you do? Shred and throw away. There is nothing nefarious in this story.

    I just hope the more deliberate obfuscation of these intelligence story issues will stop…but I am not counting on it.

  6. Boyd says:

    As long as the errors are made in good faith and the data destroyed upon discovery of the error, no harm, no foul.

    And that was exactly the case when I worked for NSA and we inadvertently collected communications we shouldn’t have.

    Precisely right, Jonk.

  7. Bithead says:

    In any event, people;

    These are logistical issues, not legalistic.
    Once again, the question becomes, how much do we invest in keeping the Demorats and their newfound ‘civil libertarian’ mask, happy?

    Seems to me in wartime, which we are deciedly living in, the information gathered is utimately of greater import than the opposition party’s being able to get a ‘dig’ in.

  8. Yeff says:

    Boyd wrote,

    And that was exactly the case when I worked for NSA and we inadvertently collected communications we shouldn’t have.

    Precisely right, Jonk.

    I wss a SIGINT analyst with the USAF and I can confirm what Boyd says. We took inadvertant intercept of US citizens rather seriously.