[star]The American Mind[star]

May 11, 2006

NSA Collecting Data on Domestic Phone Calls

Next time you pick up that phone to make a call realize a record of it will soon rest in a National Security Agency database. USA Today exposes more of the post-Sep. 11 world we live in:

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.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans ó 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.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made ó across town or across the country ó to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

The three telecommunications companies are working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the sources said. The program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists, they said.

My initial reaction was "They went overboard." After a little thought--only a little since it's 2:30 am--I realize this data is already available. The NSA could previously get it from the phone companies. The new program just cuts out the constant step of asking for updates.

Before everyone goes off on Orwell references realize only information about the call is going to the NSA not the call itself:

Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

That won't reassure many. We can also figure the database is so big that 1-900 call you made on that "dark and lonely night" won't be noticed by a spook.

The reader has to make his way to the middle of the story before getting a substansive quote from a named source:

Paul Butler, a former U.S. prosecutor who specialized in terrorism crimes, said FISA approval generally isn't necessary for government data-mining operations. "FISA does not prohibit the government from doing data mining," said Butler, now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C.

The caveat, he said, is that "personal identifiers" ó such as names, Social Security numbers and street addresses ó can't be included as part of the search. "That requires an additional level of probable cause," he said.

In other words collecting and analyzing phone calls has happened before, and it's legal.

Obviously we're on trickly constitutional ground. I would be more comfortable if the legality of this program came from bill that passed through Congress. A back-and-forth debate would hash out some of its broadness. How that would take place without the enemy learning the details of the surveilence program I don't know. USA Today specifially points out Qwest isn't a part of the program. If terrorists want to have a better chance of not getting their calls noticed they now know to hang out in Qwest's backyard.

What I am sure of is Michael Hayden's nomination to run the CIA is toast because he won't be able to answer any questions about the NSA programs. Republicans like Sen. Arlen Specter will give Democrats plenty of bipartisan cover to let them blast the hell out of the Bush administration. However, let us remember a certain Democratic administration was engaged in something called "Carnivore." Even assuming all parties and administrations are acting with the best of intentions no one has carte blanche to spy unreasonably. There's that fourth amendment in the way.

"NSA Has Massive of Americans' Phone Calls"

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Posted by Sean Hackbarth in Terrorism at 03:28 AM | Comments (9)