Friday, June 02, 2006

How the NSA wiretaps spiraled out of control

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.”
“This is not about getting a cardboard box of monthly phone bills in alphabetical order,” a former senior intelligence official said. The Administration's goal after September 11th was to find suspected terrorists and target them for capture or, in some cases, air strikes. “The NSA is getting real-time actionable intelligence,” the former official said.
The NSA also programmed computers to map the connections between telephone numbers in the United States and suspect numbers abroad, sometimes focussing on a geographic area, rather than on a specific person -- for example, a region of Pakistan. 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. [from]

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