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[infowar.de] Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report
December 24, 2005
Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
and JAMES RISEN
WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 - The National Security Agency has traced and
analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing
into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program
that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt
for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and
voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the
White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by
tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's
main arteries, they said.
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic
surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of
American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to
streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.
The government's collection and analysis of phone and Internet traffic
have raised questions among some law enforcement and judicial officials
familiar with the program. One issue of concern to the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has reviewed some separate
warrant applications growing out of the N.S.A.'s surveillance program,
is whether the court has legal authority over calls outside the United
States that happen to pass through American-based telephonic "switches,"
according to officials familiar with the matter.
"There was a lot of discussion about the switches" in conversations with
the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways
through which much of the communications traffic flows. "You're talking
about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question
was, How do you minimize something that's on a switch that's carrying
such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about
Since the disclosure last week of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance
program, President Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his
executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to
the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications
involving people with known links to Al Qaeda.
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians,
besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed
through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of
patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe
the program as a large data-mining operation.
The current and former government officials who discussed the program
were granted anonymity because it remains classified.
Bush administration officials declined to comment on Friday on the
technical aspects of the operation and the N.S.A.'s use of broad
searches to look for clues on terrorists. Because the program is highly
classified, many details of how the N.S.A. is conducting it remain
unknown, and members of Congress who have pressed for a full
Congressional inquiry say they are eager to learn more about the
program's operational details, as well as its legality.
Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have
knowledge of parts of the program say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze
communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling
whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and
the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages. Calls
to and from Afghanistan, for instance, are known to have been of
particular interest to the N.S.A. since the Sept. 11 attacks, the
This so-called "pattern analysis" on calls within the United States
would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government
wanted to trace who calls whom.
The use of similar data-mining operations by the Bush administration in
other contexts has raised strong objections, most notably in connection
with the Total Information Awareness system, developed by the Pentagon
for tracking terror suspects, and the Department of Homeland Security's
Capps program for screening airline passengers. Both programs were
ultimately scrapped after public outcries over possible threats to
privacy and civil liberties.
But the Bush administration regards the N.S.A.'s ability to trace and
analyze large volumes of data as critical to its expanded mission to
detect terrorist plots before they can be carried out, officials
familiar with the program say. Administration officials maintain that
the system set up by Congress in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act does not give them the speed and flexibility to respond
fully to terrorist threats at home.
A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said
that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry
have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the
federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.
"All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and
shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active
involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications
expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used
because of concern about revealing trade secrets.
Such information often proves just as valuable to the government as
eavesdropping on the calls themselves, the former manager said.
"If they get content, that's useful to them too, but the real plum is
going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis," he said.
"Massive amounts of traffic analysis information - who is calling whom,
who is in Osama Bin Laden's circle of family and friends - is used to
identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny."
Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the
N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of
some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access
to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United
States' communications networks and international networks. The
identities of the corporations involved could not be determined.
The switches are some of the main arteries for moving voice and some
Internet traffic into and out of the United States, and, with the
globalization of the telecommunications industry in recent years, many
international-to-international calls are also routed through such
One outside expert on communications privacy who previously worked at
the N.S.A. said that to exploit its technological capabilities, the
American government had in the last few years been quietly encouraging
the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international
traffic that is routed through American-based switches.
The growth of that transit traffic had become a major issue for the
intelligence community, officials say, because it had not been fully
addressed by 1970's-era laws and regulations governing the N.S.A. Now
that foreign calls were being routed through switches on American soil,
some judges and law enforcement officials regarded eavesdropping on
those calls as a possible violation of those decades-old restrictions,
including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires
court-approved warrants for domestic surveillance.
Historically, the American intelligence community has had close
relationships with many communications and computer firms and related
technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major
telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of
major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's
operational capability, according to current and former government
Phil Karn, a computer engineer and technology expert at a major West
Coast telecommunications company, said access to such switches would be
significant. "If the government is gaining access to the switches like
this, what you're really talking about is the capability of an enormous
vacuum operation to sweep up data," he said.
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