Today’s Must Read

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It is the closest thing I’ve seen to a complete explanation of the surveillance program the Bush Administration has assembled.

Siobhan Gorman of The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the National Security Agency has assembled what some intelligence officials admit is a driftnet for domestic and foreign communications.

Here’s the way the whole thing works, according to Gorman: into the NSA’s massive database goes data collected by the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Treasury. This information includes data about email (recipient and sender address, subject, time sent), internet searches (sites visited and searches conducted), phone calls (incoming and outgoing numbers, length of call, location), financial information (wire transfers, credit-card use, information about bank accounts), and information from the DHS about airline passengers.

Then the NSA’s software analyzes this data for indications of terrorist activity. When it hits upon a suspicious pattern, the NSA “feeds its findings into the effort the administration calls the Terrorist Surveillance Program and shares some of that information with other U.S. security agencies.”

Here’s a more in-depth explanation:

Two former officials familiar with the data-sifting efforts said they work by starting with some sort of lead, like a phone number or Internet address. In partnership with the FBI, the systems then can track all domestic and foreign transactions of people associated with that item — and then the people who associated with them, and so on, casting a gradually wider net. An intelligence official described more of a rapid-response effect: If a person suspected of terrorist connections is believed to be in a U.S. city — for instance, Detroit, a community with a high concentration of Muslim Americans — the government’s spy systems may be directed to collect and analyze all electronic communications into and out of the city.

The haul can include records of phone calls, email headers and destinations, data on financial transactions and records of Internet browsing. The system also would collect information about other people, including those in the U.S., who communicated with people in Detroit.

The data sifting is supposedly legal because it’s limited to so-called “transactional” details. In other words, the NSA cannot read the content of an email, but can use other data about the email (i.e. subject line, sender/recipient, data and time). If a suspicious pattern emerges, then the NSA, via the Terrorist Surveillance Program, may seek to wiretap.

Gorman describes the NSA’s effort (elements of which have been reported before) as basically a resurrection of the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness program, which of course was de-funded by Congress once the details became public. This time around, of course, the details have remained secret. Although the budget for the NSA’s driftnet is classified, Gorman cites one official as estimating it at $1 billion. One wonders what the reaction will be this time around:

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who led the charge to kill TIA, says “the administration is trying to bring as much of the philosophy of operation Total Information Awareness as it can into the programs they’re using today.” The issue has been overshadowed by the fight over telecoms’ immunity, he said. “There’s not been as much discussion in the Congress as there ought to be.”

We’ll have more on this in a bit.