Tinker, Tailor, Miner, Spy - Why the NSA's snooping is unprecedented in scale and scope. By Shane Harris and Tim Naftali
The magnitude of the current collection effort is unprecedented and indeed marks a shift in how the NSA spies in the United States. The current program seems to involve a remarkable level of cooperation with private companies and extraordinarily expansive data-mining of questionable legality. Before Bush authorized the NSA to expand its domestic snooping program after 9/11 in the secret executive order, the agency had to stay clear of the "protected communications" of American citizens or resident aliens unless supplied by a judge with a warrant. The program President Bush authorized reportedly allows the NSA to mine huge sets of domestic data for suspicious patterns, regardless of whether the source of the data is an American citizen or resident. The NSA needs the help of private companies to do this because commercial broadband now carries so many communications. In an earlier age, the NSA could pick up the bulk of what it needed by tapping into satellite or microwave transmissions. "Now," as the agency noted in a transition document prepared for the incoming Bush administration in December 2000, "communications are mostly digital, carry billions of bits of data, and contain voice, data and multimedia. They are dynamically routed, globally networked and pass over traditional communications means such as microwave or satellite less and less."
The agency used to search the transmissions it monitors for key words, such as names and phone numbers, which are supplied by other intelligence agencies that want to track certain individuals. But now the NSA appears to be vacuuming up all data, generally without a particular phone line, name, or e-mail address as a target. Reportedly, the agency is analyzing the length of a call, the time it was placed, and the origin and destination of electronic transmissions. Those details would be crucial in mining the data for patterns—according to the officials the Times cited, the goal of the NSA's eavesdropping system.
I am not surprised, btw, that there's no real public reaction to the NSA disclosures. At least 30% of Americans are ready to declare Bush dictator for life, so they're not concerned. Another 30%, including myself, assumed the NSA was doing this, so it's hard for us to fake being shocked and amazed. Another 30% is completely clueless. That leaves 10% to be outraged, and that's not enough to sell any papers.
Update: Molly Ivins has a terrific summary of the entire story with some historical perspective.