No doubt by now you’ve read about or heard otherwise about the USA Today story with the screaming headline, “NSA HAS MASSIVE DATABASE OF AMERICANS’ PHONE CALLS”. As can be predicted, the left has gone completely apey over the news, or rather, LEAKED INFORMATION about the classified program. Democrats and weak-knee’d Republicans in congress are demanding an investigation, and the president addressed the story a few minutes ago
“Our intelligence activities strictly target al-Qaida and their known affiliates,” Bush said. “We’re not mining or trolling through the private lives of innocent Americans.”
Bush said any domestic intelligence-gathering measures he’s approved are “lawful,” and he says “appropriate” members of Congress have been briefed.
The story contains important points that we need to understand.
— This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.
— Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over.
— This kind of data collection from phone companies is not uncommon; it’s been done before.
John Hawkins illustrates the most likely scenario for how the phone numbers are listed, compared, and if necessary, further investigated.
The phone companies, other than Qwest, are voluntarily providing phone numbers to the government. What they provide probably looks something like…
555-555-5555 called 666-666-6666 for 5 minutes at 11:23 AM on May 10, 2006
Then NSA is then probably putting that info in a database and using it to create a spiderweb of connections between terrorist suspects. For example, if a call from an al-Qaeda cell phone comes into 555-555-5555, they’re then probably looking at the numbers 555-555-5555 is calling, and then checking to see which numbers those people are calling, and looking for repeating numbers. If they find a number of interest, then they can use other databases to gather more information and try to put names and other info with those numbers.
Would that be useful in order to help uncover sleeper cells and al-Qaeda agents in the US? You bet.
And like John, I believe it’s highly likely that this program has curtailed al-Qaeda plots since September 11, 2001. The privacy issue is one that should be looked at and debated. In my opinion, what little privacy that is lost through a program like this one is no more harmful than the risks involved when Americans voluntarily give away personal information by filling out surveys or signing up for Internet services. Again, as John notes, your ISP can tell you each and every time you logged on to the Internet. And, if needed, they could probably come up with a log noting each and every IP address you visited while online. The data is out there, and we agree to give it to these companies when we sign up for membership.
If this NSA program stops the next terrorist strike in the U.S., it’s worth it.
MORE: Orin Kerr – Thoughts on the Legality of the Latest NSA Program