There's other NSA news today: USA Today is reporting that the NSA is collecting a massive traffic-analysis database on Americans' phone calls. This looks like yet another piece of Echelon technology turned against Americans.
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.
The government is collecting “external” data on domestic phone calls but is not intercepting “internals,” a term for the actual content of the communication, according to a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the program. This kind of data collection from phone companies is not uncommon; it's been done before, though never on this large a scale, the official said. The data are used for “social network analysis,” the official said, meaning to study how terrorist networks contact each other and how they are tied together.
Note that this database does not just contain phone calls that either originate or terminate outside the U.S. This database is mostly domestic calls: calls we all make everyday.
AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth are all providing this information to the NSA. Only Quest has refused.
According to sources familiar with the events, Qwest's CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA's assertion that Qwest didn't need a court order — or approval under FISA — to proceed. Adding to the tension, Qwest was unclear about who, exactly, would have access to its customers' information and how that information might be used.
Financial implications were also a concern, the sources said. Carriers that illegally divulge calling information can be subjected to heavy fines. The NSA was asking Qwest to turn over millions of records. The fines, in the aggregate, could have been substantial.
The NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database, the sources said. As a matter of practice, the NSA regularly shares its information — known as “product” in intelligence circles — with other intelligence groups. Even so, Qwest's lawyers were troubled by the expansiveness of the NSA request, the sources said.
The NSA, which needed Qwest's participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.
Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.
In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.
Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.
We should also assume that the cellphone companies received the same pressure, and probably caved.
This is important to every American, not just those with something to hide. Matthew Yglesias explains why:
It's important to link this up to the broader chain. One thing the Bush administration says it can do with this meta-data is to start tapping your calls and listening in, without getting a warrant from anyone. Having listened in on your calls, the administration asserts that if it doesn't like what it hears, it has the authority to detain you indefinitely without trial or charges, torture you until you confess or implicate others, extradite you to a Third World country to be tortured, ship you to a secret prison facility in Eastern Europe, or all of the above. If, having kidnapped and tortured you, the administration determines you were innocent after all, you'll be dumped without papers somewhere in Albania left to fend for yourself.
Judicial oversight is a security system, and unchecked military and police power is a security threat.