"The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States... by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries," the Times is reporting.
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged...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.When the NSA domestic spying story broke last week, I had a hunch that the eavesdropping technology at work was a whole lot different than what you'd find in an average wiretap. A former signals intelligence specialist wondered whether the NSA "may have compromised... a telecom carrier."That guess looks to be dead-on.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists."All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used because of concern about revealing trade secrets.The Times article also makes clear why Senator Jay Rockefeller compared the program to Total Information Awareness, the Pentagon's uber-database project.
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... [which was] ultimately scrapped after public outcries over possible threats to privacy and civil liberties.But the Bush administration regards the N.S.A.'s ability to trace and analyze large volumes of data as critical to its expanded mission to detect terrorist plots before they can be carried out, officials familiar with the program say. Administration officials maintain that the system set up by Congress in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does not give them the speed and flexibility to respond fully to terrorist threats at home.Some will say this story is old news. The NSA has long been rumored to have the ability to vacuum up huge swaths of data at once."The NSA is intercepting huge streams of communications, taking in 2 million pieces of communications an hour," James Bamford, the author of two books on the NSA, told the Boston Globe on Friday."They have a capacity to listen to every overseas phone call," added Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University."But the question has been: how do you turn all that data into something useful? You've got to find a realtively simple way to get rid of 99.99999% of the calls and e-mails quickly. Otherwise, it's like drinking from a firehose.But as link analysis and data mining programs have become more sophisticated, that sifting process has gotten easier. And, I'll bet, it is simpler still when the telecom companies are playing ball.