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NSA: “Total Access,” or Info Overload?

by david_axe on May 22, 2006

Wired News has published the most definitive look yet at AT&T’s secret room that supposedly let NSA spooks tap domestic phone calls. The info comes out of excerpts from internal Ma Bell documents, currently under court seal.
It’s not the only news on the NSA’s surveillance efforts that trickling out today. Seymour Hersh spoke with a “security consultant ” who helped set up “a top-secret high-speed circuit between its main computer complex and Quantico, Virginia, the site of a government-intelligence computer center.”

This link provided direct access to the carriers network corethe critical area of its system, where all its data are stored. What the companies are doing is worse than turning over records, the consultant said. Theyre providing total access to all the data.…“
Theoretically, [the agency could have gone] to the FISA court for a warrant to listen in. One problem, however, was the volume and the ambiguity of the data that had already been generated. (Theres too many calls and not enough judges in the world, the former senior intelligence official said.) The agency would also have had to reveal how far it had gone, and how many Americans were involved. And there was a risk that the court could shut down the program.
Instead, the N.S.A. began, in some cases, to eavesdrop on callers (often using computers to listen for key words) or to investigate them using traditional police methods. A government consultant told me that tens of thousands of Americans had had their calls monitored in one way or the other.

“Still, it’s questionable how successful the NSA could be mining data on just some of the calls made within the United States,” Information Week notes.

More than 1,000 wireless carriers, Internet service providers, rural phone companies, voice-over-IP service providers, and long distance companies handle phone calls. For a complete picture, the NSA would need to draw in much of that data, and the more data, the bigger the task. “The history of the intelligence community is information glut,” says Mark Pollitt, a former FBI agent and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. “We’re good at collecting stuff, but how do you figure out if any of it is any good? This is perhaps the toughest issue with regard to counterterrorism.”

(Big ups: Laura, Kim)
UPDATE 12:42 PM: Also, be sure to check out this fascinating New Republic story by ever-intrepid Spencer Ackerman. “Is U.S. intelligence getting dumber?” he asks.

Negroponte isn’t just moving analysts from one office to another. He’s also changing how they work. Analysis, say veterans, is becoming the study of the day’s events rather than of the broader trend–the trees instead of the forest. “Their time horizons are very short,” says Greg Treverton, a former NIC [National Intelligence Council] vice-chairman now at the Rand Corporation. “[Y]ou ask them, ‘What about these longer-term questions, like how Al Qaeda is morphing?’ They say, ‘That’s a great question. I wish we could do something on it, but we just don’t have time.’” The CIA, apparently with Negroponte’s approval, even eliminated the agency’s premier center for long-range forecasting, the Strategic Assessments Group. While CIA spokesman Tom Crispell says there has been “no analytic capability lost,” Robert Hutchings, the NIC chairman from 2003 to 2005, calls it “a retrograde step,” noting that the group “did some of the most imaginative and strategic thinking in all of government.“
And, for Hutchings, the correlation between short-term analysis and the recent U.S. strategic blunders is unmistakable. “This administration has really undermined strategic analysis and strategic policy-making,” he says. “You look at the course of our involvement in Iraq. It has just been adlibbing from almost the time main combat stopped.” Nor is that happening by accident, he continues: “The administration has allowed strategic analytic capacity to erode because it doesn’t want strategic analysis. It wants isolated facts and narrow analysis that it can draw upon to support its preferred policies.”

UPDATE 2:07 PM: Ryan Singel and Kevin Poulsen pull out some of the best Slashdot reacts to the AT&T documents’ release.
UPDATE 5:58: As Business Week reminds us, “the phone giants represent only one of many commercial sources of personal data that the government seeks to ‘mine’ for evidence of terrorist plots and other threats.”

The Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security spend millions annually to buy commercial databases that track Americans’ finances, phone numbers, and biographical information, according to a report last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Often, the agencies and their contractors don’t ensure the data’s accuracy, the GAO found.
Buying commercially collected data allows the government to dodge certain privacy rules. The Privacy Act of 1974 restricts how federal agencies may use such information and requires disclosure of what the government is doing with it. But the law applies only when the government is doing the data collecting.
“Grabbing data wholesale from the private sector is the way agencies are getting around the requirements of the Privacy Act and the Fourth Amendment,” says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington and a member of the Homeland Security Dept.‘s Data Privacy & Integrity Advisory Committee.

(Big ups: JE)

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