“NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls” (UPDATED)
More attempts by our “adversarial” press (and their leak-happy counterparts in the CIA) to gin up controversy, this time, presumably, to try to scuttle the appointment of Gen Michael Hayden as DCI.
From USA Today:
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.
“Secretly” being the sinister aspect to all this. Because we prefer our intelligence work to be done in the open, so that armchair intel specialists can keep tabs on things in between visits to the Starbucks bathroom.
The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans Ã¢â‚¬â€ most of whom arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.
And there you have it: the big blockbuster here is that the NSA, using it’s giant neocon-controlled talons, is “reaching into homes and businesses” of “ordinary Americans” and “amassing information” about phone traffic patterns.
Note that the calls are not recorded. Or listened to. Rather, they are analyzed for patterns that could help identify where terrorist cells are located.
Which, were Safeway to use their Super Saver’s Card to track potential terror cells rather than to predict, say, the general soft drink buying habits of their customers, would be approximately the same thing. [note: unable to see a connection between the use of cards that track buying habits in order to predict inventory levels and consumer buying habits and the use of similar information tracking to find calling trends and predict potential spots for investigation, David Anderson of In Search of Utopia calls this the “stupidest comment of the day.” “Stupid” having evidently become a synonym for “things stupid people can’t seem to comprehend, and so try to dismiss by calling them stupid.”]
Although USA Today and it’s source make it sound far more devious:
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 Ã¢â‚¬â€ across town or across the country Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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.
The sources would talk only under a guarantee of anonymity because the NSA program is secret.
…And because they know that such a tale wouldn’t pass muster under whistleblower protections. It is meant only to inflame those predisposed to being inflamed.
To be clear, under normal circumstances (which does not apply to being at war with those whose m.o. is to install itself in a host country and attack from within), I am not a big fan of these kinds of databases or data mining. I don’t, for instance, give my phone number to Radio Shack or Best Buy.
But these aren’t normal circumstances, and besides—there is nothing here to suggest that the database can or will be used for purposes other than those the NSA and the DoJ have already been forced to reveal: the targeting of terrorists both inside and outside the country.
But rather than dignifying what is a rather clear rehashing of what we’ve already covered with respect to the NSA surveillance program and FISA (except to note that USA Today is hoping we’ll conflate Uncle Susie or Grammy Lola’s gossip-filled conversations with their general behavior as part of the larger group called “ordinary Americans, the idea being that analyzing habits and trends to focus in on a target group—often called marketing, under different circumstances—is akin to a gross violation of civil liberties, and proof of a power-drunk administration gone MAD with proto-fascism), I’ll just point you to AJ Strata:
First off most recordings related to a warranted search cover the innocent. Picture yourself as the target of a surveillance warrant (drugs, organized crime, terrorism – pick one) and then realize how many people you contact via phone and compter. You parents, siblings, children, neighbors all get monitored and their phone number and address recorded.
That is why there is a distinction in the law (though I am not sure I am using the exact legal terms here) between the target of a surveillance and the contacts of the target. Everyone gets swept up in a surveillance. That is why judges are the only ones authorized to make a person in America or an American a target of surveillance. That includes FISA and normal courts depending on the suspected crime or activity.
Now the NSA has two roles: one to monitor our enemies overseas (their legitimate, warrentless targets) and one to investigate communications in response to warrants from US courts. What this means is they monitor a lot of targets and sweep up a lot of information regarding innocent contacts with those targets. This role is clearly stated in the NSA response:
The White House would not discuss the domestic call-tracking program. Ã¢â‚¬Å“There is no domestic surveillance without court approval,Ã¢â‚¬Â
This is the same FISA-leak all dressed up in different spin.
Prior to 9-11 NSA would note who inside the US (or what American citizen) was in contact with our enemies while monitoring our enemies. If your neighbor had called Bin Laden prior to 9-11 the NSA would know (if they were listening in on Bin Laden) and note it. But prior to 9-11 they would retain that information and not distribute it within the government to law enforcement (who must submit permission for warrants to monitor Americans and people in the US). After 9-11 this changed. Now when the NSA gets a contact with one of their targets overseas they pass that to the FBI who investigates and, if concerned, takes a request to the FISA court for a warrant to monitor.
But then, to many of those who are vociferously opposing the program, this isn’t about civil liberties concerns. It’s about a hatred of Bush and “his” war(s), and a desire to pin crimes on his administration—which itself is really just the useful idiot component of a CIA and media attempt to undermine our foreign policy so that those two shadow branches of government can re-assert their power over the cultural discourse.
In the process, however, they continue to aid the terrorists, however inadvertantly. For instance, today’s USA Today story, as both Strata and John Stephenson note, points out that Qwest is the only major communication company that refused to cooperate with the government—which means, were I a terrorist (the exploding kind, not just an evil Bush Kultist whose terrorist-tendencies include a desire to destroy the Constitution and roll-back civil liberties to the salad days when women and blacks couldn’t interfere with government), I might think about switching to Qwest, after reading this piece.
Which is great for Qwest, I suppose, but not so great for national security.
But be that as it may. GroupIntel puts this kind of traffic analysis into perspective:
[…] With regard to personal data on citizens, the government only cares if you are a terrorist or some other kind of security threat. If a recently deceased member of al-Qaida has your phone number stored in the memory of his cell phone, someone is going to pay you a visit. It should become apparent fairly quickly if your number is actually one number off from a US-based terrorist (the Tommy Tutone effect) at which point your data is going to get tossed. The goal of mining for data, like mining for gold, is to find valuable nuggets, not useless rock.
Despite all the hard work put forth by our intelligence community there are still major problems associated with efforts to find terrorists.
Recent reporting on the failure of NSAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s TRAILBLAZER program comes to mind. Designed to do on a large scale the kind of work that the much-disputed NSA terrorist surveillance program is carrying out now, TRAILBLAZER is a bottomless money pit. Let us not forget the recently deceased Virtual Case File fiasco at the FBI, the myriad of problems and the expense of the US VISIT system, and the penchant for Customs and Border Patrol computers to just flat out quit. The icing on the cake of course is the DODÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Able Danger program, which pointed out the threat to the USS Cole and the 9/11 hijackers, but was canceled when it was thought that the effort Ã¢â‚¬â€œ you guessed it Ã¢â‚¬â€œ spied on citizens.
But what about that other data-hungry group that seeks to vacuum up your information and monitor your activities for purposes that might run contrary to your personal welfare? Unlike the intelligence community these organizations have mastered the technology necessary to know exactly how to most effectively gather and exploit your personal data.
When any of the tens of millions of Capital One credit card customers call the company, the firmÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s computers correlate the data they have on their buying patterns and recent purchase activity to predict why they are calling. The call is routed to just the right customer service representative who knows with near certainty what he needs to do to solve their problem and what additional products or services to offer that their likely to buy. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.
ChoicePoint is one of nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s largest brokers of personal information. They can reach out and grab criminal records, motor vehicle records, credit histories, business records and a wealth of other data about you. Unlike the government, ChoicePoint allowed personal records of nearly 160,000 citizens to be compromised last year.
Unlike the government, private business will almost never get rid of your information as long as there is a hope of selling you something. Maybe you didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want the personal loan or the vacation package, but an analysis of your recent buying habits shows the purchase of a lot of baby clothes and diapers; watch how fast you start getting offers for life insurance or cord-blood storage services. And when theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve tapped you out theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll sell your data itself to someone else for one last buck.
Terrorists want to separate us from the corporal world. Does it make any sense not to pursue them with all the means within our power Ã¢â‚¬â€œ including the very limited use of personal information – with at least as much skill and vigor as the people who are just trying separate us from our money?
Of course, none of this will be enough to calm the shrieking hysteria of Glenn Greenwald and his civil liberties acolytes (who, because they’ve seen 3 Days of the Condor several times, consider themselves fit to pronounce on the still classified intricacies of the NSA program).
But that’s precisely the point of re-introducing this into the news cycle now: to get these hysterics riled up and hopefully apply enough political pressure put in jeopardy the nomination of Michael Hayden as the next head of the CIA. Because Hayden will pick up where Goss left off and plug the remaining leaks—and both a certain contingent within the CIA and the media rely upon leaks to control the message.
Which, if you haven’t already done so, I recommend watching Condor. Because there is a wonderful irony in viewing it today and recognizing that the NYT has become Cliff Robertson, and Robert Redford is the rogue CIA agent who has taken it upon himself to decide on US policy.
update: Matt Heidt (now writing at Black Five) emails to point me to his post explaining the purpose of today’s leak (which expands nicely on many of the themes covered in the original post):
[…] What the USA Today article is describing is a tool used by law enforcement (without a court order) to attempt to find additional bad guys who associate with a known bad guy. Let’s say, you bust a guy for smuggling dope into the country and he has a cell phone on him. You seize the phone, and you copy the recent numbers and maybe even his entire phonebook from the phone down and submit it to a law enforcement data base. They throw those numbers in with everybody else’s numbers and if you’re lucky, some other agent is looking at a guy whose number was in your smuggler’s phonebook. Then you call that agent up so that you can get some more information about your guy and vice versa. It gives you some additional avenues for investigation, but it isn’t evidence of a crime.
So the big outrage of the day is that terrorist phone numbers are being collated and cross referenced to see if any connections can be gleaned from their communications patterns. There is no contention that the calls themselves are being monitored in any way.
The likely reason that this database is so large is that terrorists typically employ more elaborate countermeasures to detection than dopers do. For a narcotics investigation, it would be a waste to go any further than one level on these numbers; not so for terrorists. For example, a terrorist might call a number (perhaps a persian rug store) and ask if they have received the order for Mr. X. This rug store could actually be an communications intermediary who would then call an Al Qaeda guy to pass along a message. By analyzing the links several levels down, the government might be able to figure out if a couple of guys they suspect are terrorists are calling or being called by the same persian rug store. And if so, then it might be a good idea to focus some investigative effort on that store.
I don’t call this an evil attempt by the Bushitler McHalliburton regime to crush civil liberties. I call it thorough investigative work that has the potential to yield positive results and identify previously unknown terrorists. Can you imagine knowing that this capability exists, that it has been shown to be effective in the past, and deciding that it is simply too politically dangerous to enact? Now that would be an impeachable offense.