A look at the telephone surveillance issue

Q & A Phone Record Release

May 12, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN

WASHINGTON -- A report that major phone companies gave the National Security Agency voluminous data about the phone calls of ordinary Americans adds a new element to the debate over government surveillance in the post-Sept. 11 era. It also raises a host of new questions about exactly what the government might be up to, and what it does or doesn't know about the activities of millions of its citizens.

Siobhan Gorman, who covers the intelligence agencies for The Sun, looks at some of the questions that are emerging. Didn't we already know that the NSA had enlisted the cooperation of the major phone companies to track calls that might provide information about terrorism?

After the program became public in December, President Bush said it was designed only to track international phone calls and that, at most, one end of the call might be in the United States. What was new in the USA Today report is the allegation that the NSA also collected records of perhaps billions of domestic calls and has a vast database of all long-distance and local phone bills for virtually every American going back at least to Sept. 11. If true, this would suggest a much broader surveillance program and a much more expensive one. What information does the National Security Agency have about the calls placed from my home, office or cell phone?

Some of the telephone companies claimed today that they did not turn over "personal" information to the NSA. However, if the USA Today report is correct, the records obtained would be the type of information that appears on your telephone bill - the phone number called, its location and the length of call. What would the NSA do with the data, once they got it? Would it be part of the warrantless wiretapping program that the administration calls terrorist surveillance?

What has been alleged is that the phone companies gave the NSA records for local and long-distance calls after Sept. 11 and the agency fed the information into a database to be analyzed for possible patterns of terrorist activity. Our current understanding of the warrantless wiretapping program suggests that the NSA had to begin building a database after Sept. 11 to figure out what calls it should be monitoring, but it is not clear whether the domestic records program would be included in that database. The administration has said that its warrantless surveillance program is concerned with tracking terrorists overseas and that the NSA hasn't been listening to purely domestic calls. What does it mean, exactly, to listen in?

The administration has said it is only monitoring communications in which one party is inside the United States and the other is outside the country. This gets tricky in the age of cell phones because the physical locations of the participants are not always apparent. There are different kinds of information the NSA can collect from a phone call. There are the data that characterize the communication - a phone number, location, and so on - and there is the content of the communication itself. Much of what the NSA does is analyze the first set of data in order to determine whether it is worth expending resources to make that communication intelligible to an analyst. So listening to a conversation would require assembling what is often digitized information into a voice stream. Did the administration lie when it said that no domestic calls were being monitored?

In February, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told Congress that eavesdropping on calls within the United States, even if connected to suspected al-Qaida activity, was "not what the president has authorized through this program." But, he added, "I can't give you assurances" that the government is not doing that. Gonzales also said that "to the extent we can engage in intercepting al-Qaida's domestic-to-domestic calls, even under [the federal law governing secret search warrants], if we can do it, we're doing it." Later, in a letter to Congress, Gonzales hinted that there might be other, classified programs that could monitor domestic calls, but he did not say such a program existed. General Hayden, the president's nominee to be the next CIA head, was in charge of the NSA at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. What was his role in creating the warrantless surveillance program?

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