We've known for years that the NSA sits on Himayalan storehouses of information - untold millions of phone calls and e-mails, both inside the United States and out.But, until recently, those databases didn't seem particularly intimidating, because NSA snoops were sworn to purge the identities of American citizens, as soon as they got caught in the surveillance net. As one former signal intelligence specialist told me a few months back:
"It's drilled into you from minute one that you should not ever, ever, ever, under any fucking circumstances turn this massive apparatus on an American citizen," one source says. "You do a lot of weird shit. But at least you don't fuck with your own people."Now we know different. And that's one major reason why this USA Today revelation so unnerving.
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY. [Qwest turned 'em down, Glenn Greenwald notes.]The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews."It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added...In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."As a result, domestic call records those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders were believed to be private.Sources, however, say that is not the case.No wonder former NSA chief Bobby Ray Inman says the program was "not authorized."Now, some people might find some small measure of comfort in the fact that this particular NSA effort is only looking at calling patterns -- not the contents of the calls themselves. Don't be. Back in January, we learned that this data-mining is directly leading to a "flood" of tips, given to the FBI, virtually all of which have led "to dead ends or innocent Americans."UPDATE 11:08 AM: Slashdot has a great little primer on "trap and trace" systems, like the on the NSA is using here. The site also points out that the NSA has effectively squashed a Justice Department inquiry into its eavesdropping.UPDATE 12:30 AM: Sen. Arlen Specter has a history of talking tough -- and then getting rolled by the White House. Let's see if this time is any different. "Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said today that he would call telephone executives to testify about a newspaper report describing a massive effort by the National Security Agency to compile records of phone calls." Other lawmakers are pissed, too.