Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Unleashing the NSA: What's the real story?

We have been told that Bush secretly loosened restrictions on the National Security Administration.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
Okay, old news. Europeans, who've been monitored by Echelon for decades, must find this all very amusing.

Problem is, it doesn't make sense. Even Bush's fervent supporters acknowledge his reasons for bypassing the secret courts that used to mediate these actions don't hold water. All the monitoring anyone's discussed publicly is perfectly doable without new law or new presidential powers. Sure, Bush could be nuts -- but I don't think he is. So what's the story that the New York Times either missed, or, more likely, has decided not to discuss?

Here's my guess. The NSA couldn't use the FISA process because they weren't really spying on individual people. No identified target, no warrant. Instead the NSA was doing in the US what they've done overseas for decades -- monitoring voice and data traffic to selected nations. Trolling, in other words. That's what Bush had to authorize; it goes well beyond FISA. The whole business about targeted monitoring is just a smokescreen.

Anyone else have a theory that makes sense?

Update 12/20: Others are drawing similar conclusions. (The date on my posting is off, I originally posted on 12/19.)
Update 12/21: Respectable sorts (WaPo) suggest this was really about monitoring based on phone and email targets rather than identified senders.
Update 12/21: Slate publishes an article by a longtime NSA watcher that puts things in a (dark) perspective.
Update 12/23: Another editorial today in WaPo is saying the same thing, though they abbreviate it as "monitor everyone". The editorial points out that a clause in Patriot I may be interpreted to allow this expansion of the NSA's mission.
Update 12/24: That didn't take long. The NYT has confirmed my suspicion. Now it makes sense. Monitoring traffic across the USA goes well beyond the FISA mandate, it required an executive order. Echelon America indeed.

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