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Editorials on the NSA database
[May 12, 2006]

Editorials on the NSA database

(Knight-Ridder / Tribune News Service Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, May 12:



The National Security Agency has been amassing a vast, secret database with records of tens of millions of telephone calls made by Americans, USA Today reported on Thursday. Telephone companies started to turn over records of millions of their customers' phone calls not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The government has created the largest database ever assembled, according to an anonymous source quoted by the newspaper.

The government apparently has even bigger plans "to create a database of every call ever made within the nation's borders" to identify and track suspected terrorists.

Think about that. Every phone call ever made.

No, not so fast.

This sounds like a vast and unchecked intrusion on privacy. President Bush's assurance Thursday that the privacy of Americans was being "fiercely protected" was not at all convincing.

We need to know more about this. The government, though, didn't offer confirmation or elaboration on Thursday. Based on the newspaper's reporting, this effort appears to go far beyond any surveillance effort that would be targeted at terrorist operations.

At first blush this program carries troubling echoes of Total Information Awareness, a proposed Defense Department "data-mining" expedition into a mass of personal information on individuals' driver's licenses, passports, credit card purchases, car rentals, medical prescriptions, banking transactions and more. That was curbed by Congress after a public outcry. It seems the people who wanted to bring you TIA didn't get the message.

This program seems to be far broader than the NSA surveillance of communications between the U.S. and overseas, which prompted great concern when it was revealed last December. Though that program is more intrusive _ it involves eavesdropping on conversations _ it is at least focused on communications between people in the U.S. and people abroad who are suspected of being connected to terrorism.

That overseas surveillance effort, this page has argued, could be justified and extended if it included some modest judicial oversight.

But this vast mining of domestic phone records ... this is something else.

Alarmed members of Congress demanded answers Thursday. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would summon the phone companies providing the information _ AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth _ for a hearing. "We're really flying blind on the subject (of domestic surveillance) and that's not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment and the constitutional issues involving privacy," Specter said.

Yes, we're flying blind.

Why would the government seek and store records of every telephone call to your doctor, your lawyer, your next-door neighbor?

Tell us.

This sounds like a vast and unchecked intrusion on privacy.


The following editorial appeared in the Orange County Register on Friday, May 12:


President Bush has tried to be reassuring in defending the National Security Agency program of electronic eavesdropping on telephone calls between people in the United States and possible terrorist suspects overseas that was disclosed last December: "One end of the communication must be outside the United States."

Along with many legal scholars, we are still convinced that program is illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was passed following the disclosure of massive wiretapping programs in the 1970s and set up a secret court to issue warrants for surveillance of Americans. The fact that Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director-appointee who ran the NSA program, has expressed a willingness to "bring the program under federal law" suggests we are not wrong.

So now comes the news that the wiretapping program was small potatoes. Using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, the NSA has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, with the goal of assembling a database consisting of every phone call placed in the United States. The idea is to use "data mining" to detect patterns or anomalies in telephone use that could lead authorities to identify terrorists.

The confidential sources who revealed the program to USA Today say it only collects telephone numbers, not names, addresses, Social Security numbers or other data. But it is easy to find a person's identity from a phone number, and it would be amazing if that hadn't been done.

There are several problems here. The first is that it is probably illegal for the National Security Agency, which was formed to monitor overseas communications, to collect this data in secret. In addition to the NSA charter, the Communications Act, first passed in 1934, has privacy provisions that seem fairly clear: Phone companies are not allowed to share data about customer calling habits unless presented with a warrant, and the fines can be stiff.

Second is that the program is probably useless when it comes to detecting terrorism. Jim Hall, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, who serves on a Department of Homeland Security data privacy committee and has discussed the issue with numerous experts, told us that data mining can be useful when looking for common patterns, like how a thief might use a stolen credit card. But terrorist acts are uncommon. One is more likely to get 99 percent false positives, which will lead to a waste of investigative resources, than to prevent a terrorist attack through this method.

It may be very American to be fascinated with the potential of technological fixes. Even aside from the privacy concerns _ and they are serious _ this looks like an enormous waste of time and taxpayers' money. It should be ended immediately.


The following editorial appeared in the New York Daily News on Friday, May 12:


Well, here we go again with the horrified screams from the crowd that's inclined to believe the big bad government is peeping through every keyhole and recording every street-corner chat about whether or not it looks like rain.

Revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting a database of every telephone call in America _ numbers dialed, that is, not conversations parsed _ happen to come as British investigators report that July's London transit bombings might have been prevented if only security forces had been aware that one of the bombers regularly called Pakistan in the days before the blasts.

No, it's no crime to call Pakistan. But when the call is part of a pattern that suggests a security risk, this is worth red-flagging and perhaps eavesdropping on _ with a warrant and court supervision, as all right up to the commander in chief agree would be necessary.

Anyway, the idea that phone companies have been turning over raw logs to the NSA somehow doesn't strike us as all that revelatory. Of course they have been, and they have been doing it legally. If the purpose is synthesizing data, then certainly the NSA would be keeping a database from which to synthesize. And where did you think the NSA was going to go to collect log data? Wal-Mart?

But let there be congressional inquisitions to assure all that the government is not prying and prying into the lives of citizens, and that data mining is done with sufficient respect for privacy, as President Bush promises. In Britain, meanwhile, you'll be hearing outcries that domestic surveillance wasn't sophisticated enough to stop the transit bombers. Thursday's parliamentary report, please do note, made a point of faulting the intelligence people for failing sufficiently pre-July 7 to appreciate that some terrorists are homegrown.

As for cries that the police state is around the corner, please try to remember that the average credit card company and Internet marketer are enormously more intrusive into your average daily affairs than the U.S. government is. And at least the government doesn't sell your name and address to a dozen auto insurance companies.


The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star on Friday, May 12:



Administration officials appear to have completely lost their bearings with respect to personal privacy. Congress should step in quickly to champion traditional American values and protections against overly intrusive government.

According to a story Thursday in USA Today, the National Security Agency has been indiscriminately collecting phone records on billions of domestic phone calls. One source in the story said the intelligence agency wants to create "a database of every call ever made" within the United States.

Supposedly this program did not involve actually listening to conversations or matching names to phone numbers. But it is unclear who has or will have access to the database, and how it might eventually be used.

The White House did not really dispute the newspaper report, falling back instead on semantic quibbles and the usual breathless reminders that there are terrorists in the world.

The story raises more legal and constitutional questions about the Bush administration's surveillance programs.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, for example, forbids "unreasonable searches" and sets out specific requirements for warrants. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act _ approved three decades ago in response to previous antics by the NSA and other agencies _ lays out specific surveillance safeguards that Bush claims he can overrule by fiat.

The NSA has traditionally concentrated on gathering information abroad, the job it highlights on its Web site (

Last December, however, press reports led Bush to acknowledge that he ordered the agency to eavesdrop without warrants on the international communications of many people in the United States. Although the administration rhetorically linked the surveillance targets to terrorism, most were never charged with crimes.

Bush critics wondered whether that surveillance was just the tip of the iceberg. Administration officials replied with soothing public statements.

"This is focused. It's targeted. It's very carefully done. You shouldn't worry," Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence, told the National Press Club in January.

He scoffed at speculation by "so-called experts" that the government might use data-mining tools to cast "a drift net" over American cities.

It will be interesting to hear Hayden _ Bush's new choice to run the CIA _ explain to Congress how he could have made such statements.

He could argue, of course, that nobody asked him about the other surveillance program. Except the White House has apparently redefined words like "surveillance" and "data-mining" so that they never apply to anything the administration is doing.

On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill voiced appropriate concern and even anger at news of this other program that did, in fact, cast a "drift net" over the entire country.

"Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida?" asked Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything. ... Where does it stop?"

That's the big question. It may well be up to Leahy and his congressional colleagues to answer it.


The following editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday, May 12:


All Americans ought to be concerned about the latest disclosures of the federal government spying on their telephone calls. They ought to be concerned because the spying operation, details of which USA Today disclosed on Thursday, threatens to unravel the web of legal protection that now protects personal and private information. It is a program that requires a full investigation by Congress, including the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

In December, President Bush acknowledged that shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls, e-mail and other electronic communications of thousands of American citizens without the court-ordered warrants that are required for such searches.

USA Today reported on a much more ambitious NSA program: to secretly collect the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data extracted from AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. One person familiar with the program said the NSA hopes to create a database of every telephone call made within the United States.

Unlike the other NSA operation, this call-tracking program doesn't involve government agents actually listening to phone calls or taping them. Instead, the NSA collects phone numbers and seeks to detect patterns that might provide clues about terrorism. But telephone numbers can often be matched with other records to obtain personal information about callers.

That's why federal laws restrict such disclosure. One firm, Qwest, wouldn't give the NSA what it sought even after it was threatened with the loss of government business.

One of the things Congress needs to look at is whether this call-tracking program is lawful. It should also look into the nature and the extent of the threats directed against Qwest and other firms. The American people also need to know how many records were obtained, why so many of them were needed, how and why they were selected and whether they have helped to identify any terrorists.

Congressional Republicans have started to complain about government spending and immigration. But only a handful, such as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., have complained about warrantless spying by the NSA. Specter says the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, will hold hearings on the NSA call-tracking operation.

Sensenbrenner should do the same. Earlier this year, Sensenbrenner complained that "stonewalling" by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was making it impossible for his committee to exercise its oversight responsibilities. Will Sensenbrenner allow this secrecy and denial to go on? Will he continue to allow the committee's constitutional responsibilities to be frustrated?


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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