Hogan's Alley

Saturday, May 13, 2006

NSA Phone Call Mining

When the existence of the NSA project for mining millions of phone connections was first revealed in the NY Times last December 24th by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, it went essentially unnoticed. After all, their article clearly stated that no domestic conversations were listened to. There was no "wiretapping" that could scare Americans.

For those unable to access the article behind its TimeSelect wall, here's two key paragraphs:

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.

Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. The identities of the corporations involved could not be determined.
Does anyone seriously doubt they were describing the program which has now caused what most of the MSM self-describes as a "media firestorm". The only difference between the revelation of this program then and now is that there is a political axe to grind, to wit, the nomination of Gen. Hayden to head the CIA. Someone inside the intelligence community or Congressional committees involved, who doesn't want Hayden at the helm, decided to re-leak the information, this time to USA Today. The rest of the media dutifully proclaimed that they were shocked, shocked to learn that such a program existed.

Last March I posted my view of such efforts and linked to an interesting background article on the theoretical underpinnings of such techniques. My view hasn't changed. A reasonable nation under attack, as we are, would enthusiastically use all available technology in its defense. But a reasonable nation would also find an easy consensus on ways to provide the necessary checks on the potential abuses of such technologies. I'm just not sure we're a reasonable nation any longer.

What has changed is my tolerance for individuals inside the government who take it upon themselves to see to it that classified tactics used against potential terrorists are shared with those terrorists in the name of being shared with all of us. Let us hope that these anonymous patriots will be revealed so that they can take full credit or blame for the outcome of their unilateral declassification of these techniques. Let us all pray that in the course of this process we don't provide those planning the next attack on us with the information they need to hide their activities. Let us also pray that those in the political realm who would strip us naked and undefended do not prevail.