The NSA spy scandal just seems to get bigger and messier with each passing day. Thanks to Slate for pointing me to today’s [Los Angeles Times->http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-spy25dec25,0,1480152,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines], which suggests the likelihood that NSA spy satellites are pointed at the United States allowing NSA to intercept virtually all domestic telecommunications traffic. While the story’s authors point out that they have not found anyone in government to specifically confirm these charges, a significant number of national security experts believe it is a virtual certainty that this is what the NSA is up to:
“It’s really obvious to me that it’s a look-at-everything type program,” said cryptography expert Bruce Schneier, who has written several books about security.
Schneier and others suspect that the NSA may be turning its satellites toward the United States and gathering vast streams of raw data from many more people than disclosed — potentially including all e-mails and phone calls from the United States to certain other countries…
The Times story expands on the nature and history of the cooperation between telecommunications companies and the NSA:
Phone companies and others have cooperated with U.S. agencies including the NSA for years. In the early 1990s, AT&T agreed to use an NSA-designed chip to ensure that law enforcement had access to phone calls.
And AT&T has a database code-named Daytona that keeps track of phone numbers on both ends of calls as well as the duration of all land-line calls, according to a business executive who has been briefed on the system.
“This started as a way for phone companies to dig out fraud,” the executive said Saturday. After Sept. 11, intelligence agencies began to view it as a potential investigative tool, and the NSA has had a direct hookup into the database, he said.
Bruce Schneier gives the lie to Bush’s protestations that the NSA intercepts are “limited” in nature:
After such massive volumes of information are collected, they are searched for suspicious language. The administration could thus argue that only hundreds of people were monitored because those conversations were the ones that were flagged because they contained suspicious words, Schneier said.
“If a computer looks at all e-mail and says ‘bing’ once, is that monitoring one person or millions?” Schneier asked. “The Bush numbers are depending on that subterfuge.”
One former senior Pentagon official who has overseen such “data mining” said he also believed the NSA was probably conducting such wholesale surveillance.
“It’s a reasonable hypothesis,” the official said, adding that he believed it was necessary against savvy terrorists who would otherwise remain undetected.
Here, a former NSA analyst gives a typical example of what such an intercept might look like and it makes me shiver:
One former NSA signals-intelligence analyst, Russell D. Tice, said the agency has long had such ability.
“I’m not allowed to say one way or another what the NSA is or is not doing. But the technology exists,” said Tice, who left the NSA this year.
“Say Aunt Molly in Oklahoma calls her niece at an Army base in Germany and says, ‘Isn’t it horrible about those terrorists and Sept. 11?’ ” Tice said: That conversation would not only be captured by NSA satellites listening in on Germany — which is legal — but flagged and listened to by NSA analysts and possibly transcribed for further investigation.
“All you would have to do is move the vacuum cleaner a little to the left and begin sucking up the other end of that conversation,” Tice said. “You move it a little more and you could be picking up everything people are saying from California to New York.“
Here is one of the more chilling passages in the article which also provides a credible explanation why Bush and his spymasters decided they could not comply with FISA (aside from the BS defenses they’ve been slinging):
In interviews, current and former intelligence officials said communications technology was so advanced that it would probably be next to impossible for the NSA to filter out all of the U.S.-based electronic communications even if it wanted to when casting a wide net for terrorists…
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was not designed to accommodate data-mining projects, and some experts and knowledgeable former U.S. officials suspect that that is why the administration is circumventing it.
Because data mining entails tracing potentially millions of innocent links to find a few suspicious ones, authorities would immediately encounter problems establishing probable cause to proceed. Then, the experts say, authorities would have to obtain warrants under the surveillance act for vast numbers of phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
I hope that when (or should I say “if”) Congress finally gets around to rewriting FISA to incorporate the problems arising from this NSA program, that members do not throw up their hands in frustration and say they can’t see any way to effectively monitor such technology. There must be ways to utilize such technology while still respecting individual civil liberties. And if there are not, then we need to outlaw the technology’s use for this purpose until its advocates can come up with proper safeguards.