NSA mines data on wide scale

Agency taps into traffic on main U.S. phone and Internet arteries

December 24, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the NSA has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.

The government's collection and analysis of phone and Internet traffic has raised questions among some law enforcement and judicial officials familiar with the program.

One issue of concern to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has reviewed some separate warrant applications growing out of the NSA's surveillance program, is whether the court has legal authority over calls outside the United States that happen to pass through U.S.-based telephonic "switches," according to officials familiar with the matter.

"There was a lot of discussion about the switches" in conversations with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows.

"You're talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, `How do you minimize something that's on a switch that's carrying such large volumes of traffic?' The court was very, very concerned about that."

Since the disclosure last week of the NSA's domestic surveillance program, Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications involving people with known links to al-Qaida.

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that NSA 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.

The current and former government officials who discussed the program were granted anonymity because it remains classified.

Bush administration officials declined to comment yesterday on the technical aspects of the operation and the NSA's use of broad searches to look for clues on terrorism suspects. Because the program is highly classified, many details of how the NSA is conducting it remain unknown, and members of Congress who have pressed for a full congressional inquiry say they are eager to learn more about the program's operational details, as well as its legality.

Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program say the NSA has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages. Calls to and from Afghanistan, for instance, are known to have been of particular interest to the NSA since the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.

This "pattern analysis" on calls within the United States would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.

The use of similar data-mining operations by the Bush administration in other contexts has raised strong objections, most notably in connection with the Total Information Awareness system, developed by the Pentagon for tracking terror suspects, and the Department of Homeland Security's Capps program for screening airline passengers. Both programs were scrapped after public outcries over possible threats to privacy and civil liberties.

The White House regards the NSA's ability to trace and analyze large volumes of data as critical to its expanded mission to detect terrorist plots before they occur, officials familiar with the program say. The administration maintains that the system set up by Congress in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does not give them the speed and flexibility to fully respond to terrorist threats at home.

A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.

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