December 24, 2005

Speaking Clarity to Obscurantism

Hatched by Dafydd

I think a lot of folks are still a bit confused about the most recent New York Times accusation against the NSA (Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report), the "superceding indictment" that appears -- from the misleading way they wrote it -- to imply that, rather than the small group of 500 or so foreign terrorists (at any one time) that the Bush administration cheerfully acknowledges wiretapping, the NSA actually "monitored" millions of people.

What the Times wants the reader to walk away thinking is that the phone calls of millions of American citizens are being listened to by the NSA, those blackguards, and that something must be done to rein in this tyrannical police state. But if you closely parse the Times story, you realize that they're not really saying what they're strongly implying. In fact, that larger group of phone calls they're talking about in the most recent article are not being listened to at all.

This is an analogy I just thought up: suppose the government designated a large number of suspected terrorist supporters -- the Memorial Mohammed Atta Mosque, CAIR, the Georgetown U. political-science department, and so forth; and then suppose they monitored how many pieces of mail those target sites received from Kabul, Islamabad, and Cairo, correlated with attacks by terrorist groups operating out of those regions. Perhaps the feds also note the actual foreign post office that postmarked the letters, and even such trivia as the size and shape of the envelope and whether the sender used a scented envelope.

But at no time was any one of these pieces of mail actually opened and read, nor the specific sender recorded. All the feds want to do in this case is see if, for example, Georgetown poli-sci always receives lots of mail from Mindanao in green manilla envelopes three days before the Abu Sayyaf Group attacks an American base in the region... allowing them perhaps to predict upcoming attacks.

That's the larger group, the one discussed in the second Times accusation of "domestic surveillance" "without a warrant," according to "officials."

But at the same time, there is another program in place that tracks all mail sent to anywhere in the United States with the return address "Osama and Ayman, the Cave, Tora Bora." Those letters are actually steamed open and read, then resealed and allowed to continue en route to the recipient -- whoever that might happen to be.

That is the smaller group, the one exposed by the first Times accusation article. Two different groups, two entirely different sets of actions by the NSA.

(Hence the absurdity of the Times' vapid claim that if the feds were actually listening to this larger group of phone calls, then they would need a warrant. But they're not. So they don't. Duh. But boy, it sure sounds bad!)

Note, I'm not commenting on the legality of steaming open mail; in the real case, we're talking about electronic intercepts, "wiretaps" if you will, and the laws governing those are very different than the laws governing physical mail. But I do want to help folks understand the distinction between the two groups; it took me many minutes of pondering, close reading, and consulting my editorial Magic 8-Ball before I finally understood what the Times was really saying... and by contrast, what they hoped the readers would misunderstand them to be saying.

I realize this may be hard to swallow, but it does appear there is a possibility that perhaps there might be rather less here than meets the eye.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 24, 2005, at the time of 2:05 PM

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(Click here to see all of my posts in this series.) Another good example of why Osama reads al-NYT:Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials ReportEric Lichtblau and James Risen WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 - The National Security Agency has traced [Read More]

Tracked on December 24, 2005 9:19 PM


The following hissed in response by: Steven Den Beste

What you're describing is known in intelligence as "traffic analysis".

The above hissed in response by: Steven Den Beste [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 24, 2005 4:14 PM

The following hissed in response by: RiverRat

This is a good metaphor but also I think of these programs as analyzing traffic on the interstate highway system. What type and how many vehicles are moving between addresses, for example, in Secaucus, NJ and San Carlos, CA? The cellphone calls = cars, laptop instant messages = motorcycles, laptop email = small trucks, laptop FTP = 16 Wheelers. What addresses in Secaucus and San Carlos are the destinations? But that tells us nothing about the passengers in these vehicles thus requires no warrant under any circumstances.

Separately you analyze who's driving the vehicle and who owns it. do you that without looking at the passengers. If you find a driver in Seacaucus is reasonably determined to be involved in terrorism I believe you now have reason to record (but not read) the passengers in these vehicles and ask for a FISA warrant covering both vehicles. With the warrant, you now analyze the vehicle's passengers and cargo from previous and future trips.

Now, what happens when you reposition (without driving, the vehicle from Secaucus to Peshawar? Still need a FISA warrant for the vehicle in San Carlos? Who's the owner of the vehicle? It the warrant on the vehicle or it's driver or on the vehicle's location? Is it on the owner? Who's the owner? Who are the drivers?

Now, if you're monitoring these trips using the penumbral emanations from a geo-stationary satellite owned by a private concern which is 24 thousand miles from earth over the Mid-Atlantic Ocean at a receiving station, operated under contract from the NSA by MI-5, in Scotland do you need a FISA warrant? Oh, btw, when you're moving the vehicle from Secaucus to Peshawar, the folks at ICE can search it for stowaway passengers as it crosses the US border without a warrant.

Is the passenger monitoring and analysis for national security purposes and not (yet) for domestic law enforcement?

FISA was bad law in '78. That's why every President since has asserted the right to exercise executive authority for warrantless searches in matters of national security. With new technologies FISA is as useful as a hardwired, rotary dial, black AT&T phone or an unrestored Model T Ford. It should be disassembled, the useful components recycled, and rest buried in a landfill.

The above hissed in response by: RiverRat [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 24, 2005 5:03 PM

The following hissed in response by: bill

Well lets just suppose that the phone calls aren't actually being listened to, but are being screened by computers. Only the ones that meet certain criteria are actually being listened to.

So if you aren't a terrorists, then it's unlikely you will be listened to.

I have a question -- why hasn't any of the esteemed dems that protest too much demanded that it stop? That would be the thing to do, unless of course you were afraid of being blamed in the event there was another attack and you were the one who stopped the dots from being connected. Let's see them stand tall.

The above hissed in response by: bill [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 24, 2005 8:00 PM

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