The NY Times reports today that the focus from the U.S. goverment to obtain data from the country’s largest phone companies, is on long-distance carriers, not local carriers. This garnered from statements by company officials.
The statements have come in the week since USA Today reported that the National Security Agency had collected local and long-distance phone records on tens of millions of Americans from Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The responses by the companies suggest that the agency, in an effort to find patterns that could identify terrorists, sought records from major long-distance providers like the former MCI (now part of Verizon), AT&T and Qwest, but did not ask for data on local calls.
Of course the news that the NSA was collecting this information shouldn’t be so much of a shock, as the NY Times reported in “December that the National Security Agency had gained backdoor access to streams of domestic and international phone and e-mail traffic with the cooperation of telecommunications companies.”
And a former AT&T technician, Mark Klein, provided documents to reporters this year describing equipment installed at an AT&T office in San Francisco in 2003 capable of monitoring a large quantity of e-mail messages, Internet phone calls and other Internet traffic.
Klein’s documents are at the center of a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “an advocacy group, asking a federal court to bar AT&T from turning over customer records to the government without proper court authorization.”
Mr. Klein stated in a deposition that he had been told by other AT&T employees that the security agency had set up monitoring rooms in San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Calif., Los Angeles and San Diego.
At a hearing on the lawsuit yesterday in San Francisco, Judge Vaughn R. Walker rejected an AT&T request to force the plaintiffs to return the documents. Justice Department lawyers argued that the lawsuit should be quashed on national security grounds. Another hearing was scheduled for June 23.
The Baltimore Sun reports that “The National Security Agency developed a pilot program in the late 1990s that would have enabled it to gather and analyze massive amounts of communications data without running afoul of privacy laws.”
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, it shelved the project — not because it failed to work — but because of bureaucratic infighting and a sudden White House expansion of the agency’s surveillance powers, according to several intelligence officials.
The agency opted instead to adopt only one component of the program, which produced a far less capable and rigorous program. It remains the backbone of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance efforts, tracking domestic and overseas communications from a vast databank of information, and monitoring selected calls.
Four intelligence officials knowledgeable about the program agreed to discuss it with The Sun only if granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The program the NSA rejected, called ThinThread, was developed to handle greater volumes of information, partly in expectation of threats surrounding the millennium celebrations. Sources say it bundled together four cutting-edge surveillance tools. ThinThread would have:
* Used more sophisticated methods of sorting through massive phone and e-mail data to identify suspect communications.
* Identified U.S. phone numbers and other communications data and encrypted them to ensure caller privacy.
* Employed an automated auditing system to monitor how analysts handled the information, in order to prevent misuse and improve efficiency.
* Analyzed the data to identify relationships between callers and chronicle their contacts. Only when evidence of a potential threat had been developed would analysts be able to request decryption of the records.
An agency spokesman declined to discuss NSA operations. Read on here…
In an editorial today the LA Times says, “Bush cares more about confirming Hayden than about coming clean on the NSA.”
Meanwhile the hearings are under way today on Hayden’s nomination.