Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 19, 2006

NSA revelations and “transactional data”

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christian Beckner on March 19, 2006

Shane Harris at the National Journal continues his excellent reporting on the revelations about domestic surveillance activities by the NSA in this new story, which finds hints about the scope and nature of the surveillance in question in a recent letter sent by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales:

On February 28, Gonzales sent committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a six-page letter, partly to respond to questions he was unprepared to answer at the hearing, but also “to clarify certain of my responses” in the earlier testimony. In the letter, Gonzales took pains to correct any “misimpressions” that he might have created about whether the Justice Department had assessed the legality of intercepting purely domestic communications, for example, as opposed to those covered by the NSA program, in which one party is outside the United States. The attorney general didn’t say that Justice had contemplated the legality of purely domestic eavesdropping without a warrant, but he also didn’t say it hadn’t.

Gonzales’s letter was intriguing for what else it didn’t say, especially on one point: With exacting language, he narrowed the scope of his comments to address only “questions relating to the specific NSA activities that have been publicly confirmed by the president.” Then, as if to avoid any confusion, Gonzales added, “Those activities involve the interception by the NSA of the contents of communications” involving suspected terrorists and people in the United States.

Slightly, and with a single word, Gonzales was tipping his hand. The content of electronic communications is usually considered to be the spoken words of a phone call or the written words in an electronic message. The term does not include the wealth of so-called transactional data that accompany every communication: a phone number, and what calls were placed to and from that number; the time a call was placed; whether the call was answered and how long it lasted, down to the second; the time and date that an e-mail message was sent, as well as its unique address and routing path, which reveals the location of the computer that sent it and, presumably, the author.

Considering that terrorists often talk and write in code, the transactional data of a communication, properly exploited, could yield more valuable intelligence than the content itself.

The article goes on to analyze this possibility in greater detail, based upon interviews with a number of anonymous sources. Very interesting, and worth reading in full.

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