NSA Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report
Eric Lichtblau and James Risen and the NYT continue to feed us the NSA surveillance story that they uncovered well over a year ago in dribs and drabs. Today’s installment further fuels the theory of many that something much bigger than a few intercepted conversations was going on.
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. “There was a lot of discussion about the switches” in conversations with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows. “You’re talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that’s on a switch that’s carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that.”
Since the disclosure last week of the N.S.A.’s domestic surveillance program, President Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications involving people with known links to Al Qaeda. What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.
The current and former government officials who discussed the program were granted anonymity because it remains classified. Bush administration officials declined to comment on Friday on the technical aspects of the operation and the N.S.A.’s use of broad searches to look for clues on terrorists. Because the program is highly classified, many details of how the N.S.A. is conducting it remain unknown, and members of Congress who have pressed for a full Congressional inquiry say they are eager to learn more about the program’s operational details, as well as its legality.
The tone of the article is rather odd. After all, if you’re dealing with “probably the most classified program that exists in the United States government,” it’s hardly surprising that the administration would be less than forthcoming with information.
As to the operation itself, the information remains too scant for me to become too excited. I would certainly hope that the federal government is combing through vast amounts of data to look for patterns related to terrorist activity. That is, after all, the heart of signals intelligence. I have not seen any indication that they are doing anything other than looking at conversations dealing with those suspected of terrorist ties.