The NSA phone call database is illegal

A newly revealed National Security Agency database of domestic phone calls is dangerous and clearly illegal.

Since shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. the National Security Agency has been collecting private phone records through a program of cooperation Once again, President Bush has botched the job and opened the door to sweeping government abuse of citizens in the name of "security."with AT&T (and its merged regional entities), Verizon, and BellSouth, which have turned over customer records to the government, according to a USA Today report. This is domestic spying. It is illegal.

The NSA, a military agency, is chartered to conduct only foreign survelliance. Even its "Terrorist Survelliance Program," which President Bush has defended as necessary to "protecting Americans," is justified by the fact that it is used to monitor calls out of the United States. Yet the Bush Administration today extended its "protecting Americans" rationale to this newly revealed domestic monitoring program. From today's Washington Post:

"The intelligence activities undertaken by the United States government are lawful, necessary and required to protect Americans from terrorist attacks," said Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, who added that appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on intelligence activities. 

Having obliterated the distinction that limits NSA monitoring to foreign calls by adding calls with a domestic origin to its targets, the NSA is systematically expanding its window into the lives of all Americans. There must be a line somewhere, but it won't be established until citizens stand up and demand it be drawn and enforced. 

The fact that "appropriate members of Congress have been briefed" is not a satisfactory answer to concerns about the program. The Bush Administration has attempted to justify illegal actions by claiming it is making less than a dozen people aware of some of the facts. That isn't effective oversight in the first place, nor an excuse for conducting illegal surveillance.

President Bush said today that "We are not trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates." The program does, nevertheless, troll through the communications of hundreds of millions of Americans.

What is the NSA trying to accomplish by building a database—the world's largest, a source bragged—that describes all Americans' phone calls? It is part of a process called "traffic analysis," which looks for expected patterns in communication in order to isolate unusual activity. When we hear about "chatter" in the terrorist networks, they are talking about communications that stand out from the background noise, and that's identified by having benchmarks for normal communication patterns. The theory is that, if Omar the Terrorist calls Sven the Anarchist, having never spoken before, the NSA will spot the new connection.

The way the program is described, the telcos say they are still protecting our identities. If that were the case, it would be impossible to "focus on al Qaeda and their known affiliates." The telcos may be providing just originating and terminating telephone numbers to the NSA, but the NSA is certainly using reverse lookup databases to identify who is using the phones. There's nothing anonymous in traffic analysis like this.

That our phone carriers are participating in the program is unconsionable and dangerous. When government subsumes corporate resources for its purposes, it is a short road to fascism or totalitarianism. Citizens can only rely on their confidence in the government not to abuse its power when public and private entities are aligned to monitor their lives. And government isn't the recipient of much trust these days.

AT&T said in a statement that it "prize[s] the trust" customers place in the company. It betrayed that trust. If Qwest could refuse to disclose call records to the NSA, all the carriers could have. This program should have been discussed when it was launched, not discovered by a newspaper almost five years later. All the carriers going along with this program should be ashamed and, moreover, customers should switch based on this kind of treatment.

Arguments that our "enemies" would get a leg up on our defenses if they knew all calls in the United States were monitored are idiotic, because the United States was built on a system of government designed to operate largely in the open with extensive checks and balances that, if subverted, would be a greater threat to freedom than any terrorist plot.

It is the ability to communicate with confidence that the government isn't listening that is an important pillar of the great nation President Bush is sworn to protect. Once again, he has botched the job and opened the door to sweeping government abuse of citizens in the name of "security."