Tuesday, March 11, 2008

WSJ reports on NSA surveillance and "connecting dots"; House balks at telecommunications immunity protection

Siobhan Gorban has a major story in the Monday March 10 2008 Wall Street Journal about the National Security Agency (NSA), halfway between Washington and Baltimore on the old Baltimore-Washington Parkway (295), on Fort George G. Meade, MD. The story is called “NSA’s Domestic Spying Grows As Agency Sweeps Up Data; Terror Fight Blurs Line Over Domain; Tracking Email,” link here. Ironically, I played in the Armed Forces chess championship in 1969 at Fort Meade when I was in the Army.

According to the article, NSA has become a pivot for all the other intelligence gathering, linking overseas intelligence with domestic intelligence from the FBI. NSA’s massaging of data on domestic activities of American citizens is controversial. Generally, it may have access to email send-from’s, IPs and times, Internet sites visited, landline and cellphone send-to’s, financial data, and airline travel. It is very unlikely, in practice, that such sifting would lead to arrests of Americans domestically for activities unrelated to terrorism.

There is an argument that NSA practice does not compromise individual privacy as much as it would have in the past because so many people post personal information on blogs and social networking sites. However, that does not apply to everyone. Many individuals prefer to keep their lives private.

After 9/11, a lot was made of “connecting the dots,” which seems to be the NSA function, to develop associations or patterns among data. If a private citizen (say a small business owner, or webmaster for a controversial site) receives a troubling email or phone call and passes it to the FBI, the NSA would probably try to correlate the email with other bits of similar information. The government would consider information like this significant and possibly act (for example, contacting overseas governments or military commanders) when it turns up with similar tips from otherwise unrelated sources and finds a consistent pattern than indicates both specificity and credibility.

The FBI website has a page for tips and accepts tips at local email addresses. People who post controversial material on the web do receive bizarre emails, I have reported five of these since 9/11, three in 2002 (well before the invasion in Iraq). (I make no claim of “reporter privilege” given the circumstances, as these were unsolicited unusual claims.) I had a controversial essay about terrorism hacked in April 2002, right at a spot where a discussion of suitcase nukes started. I did have a telephone conversation with an agent in 2005.

Gorban also has a story in the Journal March 11, “House Democrats defy White House on Spy Program,” about the refusal of the House to go along with White House proposals to grant telecommunications companies immunity for cooperating with authorities in intelligence investigations. The link (preview) is here. I had discussed this issue on this blog on Feb. 28, 2008 (see archive link).

The New York Times on March 11 has a story by William K. Rashbaum, "Revelations Began in Routine Tax Inquiry," saying that a routine IRS audit led to the scandal involving Democratic New York governor Eliot Spitzer; however there was some degree of "connecting the dots" within domestic law enforcement. Link here.

Picture: Notice the tape machine implicated in the Nixon White House Watergate scandal (lower left).

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