Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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NSA spying much greater than acknowledged

The U.S. National Security Agency has analyzed much more telephone and
Internet traffic flowing in and out of the United States than the Bush
administration has admitted to date, the NYT reported today.

And they did it with the co-operation of some of the U.S.'s largest telcos.

An excerpt:

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.

Officials in the government and the
telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program
say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean
clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call
lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations
of phone calls and e-mail messages. Calls to and from Afghanistan, for
instance, are known to have been of particular interest to the N.S.A.
since the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.

This so-called
“pattern analysis” on calls within the United States would, in many
circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to
trace who calls whom.

The use of similar data-mining operations
by the Bush administration in other contexts has raised strong
objections, most notably in connection with the Total Information
Awareness system, developed by the Pentagon for tracking terror
suspects, and the Department of Homeland Security's Capps program for
screening airline passengers. Both programs were ultimately scrapped
after public outcries over possible threats to privacy and civil
liberties.

Sat, December 24 2005 » * Big Picture Stuff, Main Page