Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 14, 2006

Richard Falkenrath defends NSA telco revelations

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security — by Christian Beckner on May 14, 2006

Former White House Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Richard Falkenrath defends the NSA activities divulged by USA Today on Thursday in a piece in the Washington Post on Saturday. I know Rich and have a lot of respect for his knowledge of homeland security, but I think that his defense of the NSA relies heavily on inaccurate or suspect assumptions.

For example, he writes:

The potential value of such anonymized domestic telephone records is best understood through a hypothetical example. Suppose a telephone associated with Mohamed Atta had called a domestic telephone number A. And then suppose that A had called domestic telephone number B. And then suppose that B had called C. And then suppose that domestic telephone number C had called a telephone number associated with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The most effective way to recognize such patterns is the computerized analysis of billions of phone records. The large-scale analysis of anonymized data can pinpoint individuals — at home or abroad — who warrant more intrusive investigative or intelligence techniques, subject to all safeguards normally associated with those techniques.

The first example he gives – connecting a known suspect to 1, 2, or 3 degrees of association – is a useful and appropriate form of investigatory analysis, and does have the potential to uncover hidden relationships among people. But that type of analysis DOES NOT REQUIRE the NSA to have complete and direct access to the entire massive database of telco call records; instead, it would be possible for the NSA or any other intelligence or law enforcement agency to query these databases through existing and legal processes, and get the limited set of information that they need to develop intelligence. I can’t fathom how NSA control of complete call records facilitates a greater level of intelligence than a limited and legally-vetted approach.

He also describes the telco call records as “anonymized data.” But anonymized data would be, by definition, entirely non-traceable to a given entity. But as Kevin Drum pointed out yesterday:

Even a child knows that phone numbers can be linked to names and addresses using ordinary commercial databases. There is absolutely nothing anonymous about this data, and only a shameless con man would try to convince us otherwise.

Later in the story, Falkenrath offers an affirmative legal interpretation of the NSA’s activities:

The three companies reported to have supplied telephone records to the NSA also appear to be acting lawfully. The Telecommunications Act of 1934, as amended, generally prohibits the release of “individually identifiable customer proprietary network information” except under force of law or with the approval of the customer. But, according to USA Today, the telephone records voluntarily provided to the NSA had been anonymized. In addition, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 explicitly permits telecommunications companies to provide customer records to the government if the government asks for them. So it would appear that the companies have been acting not just in the public interest, but also within the law and without encroaching on the privacy of any of their customers.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t weigh in on this legal interpretation. But Rich isn’t a lawyer either, and other people with legal backgrounds think that this interpretation of the law is inaccurate.

Finally, Rich frames the fallout from the NSA story as a referendum on Michael Hayden’s confirmation. No doubt some people are pushing to block his confirmation because of this, but that’s a sideshow – and in fact, given his reputation has a solid manager, I don’t have a problem with his confirmation even in light of this story. What’s really at issue in light of this story is the Adminstration’s careless disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law, which I think is an immense strategic errors in the war on terror, one which strengthens our enemies, alienates our friends, divides the American public, and ultimately weakens our ability to protect the United States against the terrorist threat.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 15, 2006 @ 3:49 am

It will be interesting if someone is able to document the contributions of Richard Falkenrath to the discourse and accomplishments of the first 5 years post 9/11. He has strongly held views and is certainly sure of the correctness of those views. If I am correct, his original location on 9/11 was in HHS, then the White House Executive Office of the President then consulting. He definitely has made contributions but it is interesting he is not alone he believing that his expertise and judgement should be persuasive on all issues, and refuses to focus his evident intellect where he is most capable. We do need a Leonardo in the area of Homeland Security but I don’t think Richard will qualify. His emphasis on certain items in which he is not really expert and ability to win the day one way or another I believe has resulted in huge opportunity costs that only time will tell are or were excessive in the light of events. I want him involved but just like some others the Renaissance Man approach does not necessarily work in a highly technological world where more minds rather than individual genius may win the day. Absent a system that puts more minds to work perhaps Richard is a gift afterall.

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