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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    As I heard of this program last night on the TV news and read this post this morning, my first thought was, Gads, the lefty loonies woll again crawl from ubderneath the woodwork and start their whining, ranting and raving about their “rights being violated”. Since last week, when the first NSA spying story broke, I have yet to hear of anyones rights being violated or anyone experiencing any direct problems coming from the NSA program. Joe (fictitious) did not have a problem with his wife finding out about his mistress and Sally (fictitious) did not have her secret recipe disclosed. In fact, not one US citizen experienced a problem. But you can count on the loonies to start their sickening rohtoric about thier “rights” without concern about theirs or anyones rights to securty from terrorists attack.

  2. Jonk says:

    I doubt they are listening in on conversations, the volume of calls in the US is simply impossible to deal with. What is plain in the article is that they look for patterns of calls…probably from the US to specific targets overseas, then at the very least they have a place to start on the overseas end. Again, I feel the NYT is misguided and basically trying to sell papers about a puff of smoke. Nice job uncovering our techniques by the way…bravo.

  3. odograph says:

    I worked as a software engineer for a lot of years. NSA stories were common from co-workers and from the trade press. IIRC, I heard a story in the early 80’s about the NSA’s phone monitoring capabilities. It was from an engineer who was amused to know that while he was in Europe his conversations were being montiored by automated equipment. It amused him to say things like “I’m in Paris now, but I plan to ‘cruise missle’ down to Rome tomorrow.” Back then, when ‘cruise missle’ was a rare phrase, he knew it would turn on the phone logging.

    So am I surpised that it can be done on a widespread basis 20 years later? Not at all.

    The question is purely a legal one. When congress passed their 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, did they have an eye on this kind of technology? IMO the timeframe is pretty close.

  4. odograph says:

    Actually I’m pretty sure I ‘read’ not ‘heard’ the story. My 20-year-later memory says it was a magazine of some kind.

  5. DougJ says:

    Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. I think that given the success the program has had in foiling the plot to attack the Brooklyn Bridge the program should be expanded. I see no reason why we shouldn’t send all telephone and email communication through a filter that looks for combinations of loaded words like “bomb” and “blow up” and “bridge”. This would not contitute a privacy invasion — only those who were communicating about a possible terrorist attack would be caught by the filter. It seems a smart way to keep the country safe while at the same time mainting our important privacy rights.

  6. anjin-san says:

    “Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear”

    Sounds like a KGB slogan…

  7. Unscripted Thoughts says:

    My Grandfather used to say to me “Circumstances do not define ‘who’ you are…but they do reveal who you are.” I am not overly concerned with the gathering of massive amounts of data to put together a jig-saw puzzle that might (or might not) prevent a disaster. I am concerned about “who is watching the watchers” as so ably demonstrated by the Barrett report detailing IRS abuse under Clinton. (BTW, interesting that little tidbit got buried isn’t it?)

    No doubt that the NYT revelations are damaging to US national security interests and I hope will be aggressively prosecuted. Apparently, the MSM is trying to relive the “glory days” of Vietnam….but this is no Vietnam and the stakes are immense. The bottom line for all of this: the US must now abandon expensive systems (and existing networks) already in place and shift its strategy and techniques. When I was a young Navy Lieutenant, Aldridge Ames compromised our systems and caused the same thing. He was revealed as a traitor. Any bets on how the so-called “journalists” will fare?

    One (possibly) good thing that may come of this entire sorry episode: the bad guys now THINK they know what our capabilities are….and that can still work in our favor.

  8. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘Actually I’m pretty sure I ‘read’ not ‘heard’ the story. ‘

    I’m pretty sure you ‘made up’ the story.

  9. Kent says:

    I guess I missed something. What is the big deal about the relevations of spying in the NYT? First, it would be more surprising it there were no spying. Kinda like sharing the secret that the sun came up this morning. Second, as early as June 2003, the government was anouncing on its own web pages that “law enforcement and homeland security communities were able to piece together Faris’ communications to al-Qaeda through his use of cell phones and the Internet.”Actually I had to get this link from Google’s cache, not from the State Department. What’s the news?
    I have heard Cheney discussing the use of cell phone to track Osama.