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Monday, May 22, 2006

Hersch - NSA is Listening In

(Keywords: , , , , every american becomes a terrorist suspect)

Seymour Hersch, the reporter who broke the story that the administration was considering using nuclear weapons on Iran, tells us that the NSA isn't just collecting phone calls and looking for patterns, but is listening in. In The New Yorker, he writes, "Last December, the Times reported that the N.S.A. was listening in on calls between people in the United States and people in other countries, and a few weeks ago USA Today reported that the agency was collecting information on millions of private domestic calls. A security consultant working with a major telecommunications carrier told me that his client 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 carrier’s network core—the 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. 'They’re providing total access to all the data.'"

When I first heard that the NSA had a database of phone records, I remember thinking that they wouldn't be of much value unless you actually heard the calls. I mean, if terrorist suspect A were calling a pizza parlor once a week, how else would you know if he were talking to another terrorist or just ordering a pizza? The only way would be to listen.

According to Hersch, the tracking is extremely broad - giving lie to the administration's claims that the program is narrowly focused on terrorist suspects. "The N.S.A. also programmed computers to map the connections between telephone numbers in the United States and suspect numbers abroad, Hersch writes, "Sometimes focussing on a geographic area, rather than on a specific person—for example, a region of Pakistan."

More disturbing is Hersch's description of a process known as 'chaining', "Such calls often triggered a process, known as 'chaining,' in which subsequent calls to and from the American number were monitored and linked. The way it worked, one high-level Bush Administration intelligence official told me, was for the agency 'to take the first number out to two, three, or more levels of separation, and see if one of them comes back'—if, say, someone down the chain was also calling the original, suspect number. As the chain grew longer, more and more Americans inevitably were drawn in." In other words, if someone calls Pakistan and you later call them, you're a link in the chain.

What's so troubling to me is that, by using this method of chaining to assign suspicion, there's no logical way you could argue that eventually all americans would eventually become suspects in this database. It's said that everyone in the world knows everyone else through six degrees of separation. If you look at it as a network of anyone you come in contact to on the telephone, then that span of separation likely becomes smaller. And if you consider that some of these 'suspect' numbers are suspect because of their area codes, it becomes smaller still.