On December 17, 2005, President Bush responded to reports that he had authorized the National Security Agency of the United States (NSA) to eavesdrop on the communications of people in the United States, including Americans, without the legally required court orders to do so:
In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks.
In fact, this was not consistent with US law or the Constitution, but many people bought this explanation anyway. The invocation of September 11 still trumps everything else.
Fast-forward 6 months to May 11, 2006, when USA Today reported that the NSA has been recording data on the phone calls of millions of Americans:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.
The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans – most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.
The “largest database ever assembled in the world”, according to an individual familiar with the NSA’s secret program, may not include recordings of the conversations, but it does include the time, duration, and phone numbers of each call. This is more than enough to gain intimate insight into private lives.
The information was helpfully provided to the NSA – without warrants – by some of America’s biggest telecommunications companies: AT & T, Verizon, and BellSouth, who provide phone service to more than 200 million US customers.
Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary, responded to the renewed controversy over NSA surveillance activities by saying they are “lawful, necessary and required to protect Americans from terrorist attacks”.
Meanwhile, the FBI is seeking the phone records of journalists involved in leaks of secret information – like the one that revealed the existence of the NSA’s phone record mining operation – in order to identify their sources.
Given the close cooperation between agencies like the FBI, the CIA and the NSA, how long will it be before the FBI has access to this massive database of telephone calls, if they don’t have it already?
From tracking down al-Qaeda operatives to prosecuting journalists who are critical of the administration, and their sources, in just six months. What’s next?