Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tens of millions of terrorists

Either that, or we're in the midst of a civil liberties overreach that would make Nixon blush.

According to USA Today, the National Security Agency has been covertly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. The information is used to analyze calling patterns in an attempt to detect terrorist activity.

So what do my calls to Reginald van Osteen in Brooklyn have to do with terrorism? I repeat: tens of millions of Americans. As a caveat, the NSA says it's not listening to or recording conversations. I guess that's supposed to make me feel better about the government snooping into my personal business -- without cause.

Now sometimes these stories lose their punch upon further review. Perhaps this is some sort of random computer analysis, where information collected is promptly discarded. Perhaps that is totally naive. As someone who eschews conspiracy theories and left wing paranoia, it scares me to think that I actually believe this could be true. Scarier still, USA Today broke this story.

"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 — across town or across the country — 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, it should be noted, Bush's nominee to lead the CIA directed the NSA for more than six years. Finally, J. Edgar's promise fulfilled.

The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.

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. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. 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.

Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, declined to discuss the agency's operations. "Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide," he said. "However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."

This oughta put Dubya's favorable rating under 30 percent. Somewhere, Dick Nixon is smiling.

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