Seymour Hersh offers his thoughts in this week’s New Yorker on the latest revelations about the NSA. The key paragraphs:
….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 carrierâ€™s network coreâ€”the critical area of its system, where all its data are stored. â€œWhat the companies are doing is worse than turning over records,â€ the consultant said. â€œTheyâ€™re providing total access to all the data.â€
This could explain BellSouth’s denial of USA Today’s NSA story. The story continues:
â€œThis is not about getting a cardboard box of monthly phone bills in alphabetical order,â€ a former senior intelligence official said. The Administrationâ€™s goal after September 11th was to find suspected terrorists and target them for capture or, in some cases, air strikes. â€œThe N.S.A. is getting real-time actionable intelligence,â€ the former official said.
The N.S.A. 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 personâ€”for example, a region of Pakistan. Such calls often triggered a process, known as â€œchaining,â€ 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 â€œto take the first number out to two, three, or more levels of separation, and see if one of them comes backâ€â€”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.
If “chaining,” as described above, is what the NSA is doing with the telco databases, then that is somewhat different than the broad “social network analysis” that was described by USA Today. And it could be moderately useful as a tool going out 1 or 2 degrees of separation, especially if the data is updated in real-time. But I am still very troubled by the way that all of these NSA activities have been implemented, absent any real concern for the rule of law and Constitutional checks and balances.