Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Michael: new technology at the root of the NSA wiretap scandal?

UPDATE: NYT Confirmed that the wiretaps were, in fact, a data mining operation.

Does new technology explain the Bush Administration's perception that they could not submit to FISA oversight? There are good reasons to think that this might be the case.

Primarily, one has to understand that we might not be talking about 'wiretaps' as commonly conceived where the NSA's secret program is concerned. More likely what was going on was high volume scanning of a sampling, or even a filtered set, of international communication traffic looking for matches to known voices, or some algorythmic match for language and/or keywords. In short, what the NSA might have been doing was Total Informational Awareness lite.


  • In 1995 the FBI requested the legal authorization to do very high-volume monitoring of digital calls and was turned down by Congress.

  • There's no way for the judicial system to approve the sheer number of warrants for the number of calls that the FBI wanted to monitor, and that the NSA seems to have in fact monitored.

  • The agency could never hire enough humans to be able to monitor that many calls simultaneously, which means that they'd have to use voice recognition technology to look for "hits" that they could then follow up on with human wiretaps.

When asked why Bush didn't simply ask Congress to pass a law making the program clearly legal, AG Gonzales told reporters: "We've had discussions with members of Congress, certain members of Congress, about whether or not we could get an amendment to FISA, and we were advised that that was not likely to be - that was not something we could likely get, certainly not without jeopardizing the existence of the program, and therefore, killing the program."

Perhaps Congressional members faced with a program of routinized and automated snooping of U.S. citizen's communications similar to what they rejected in 1995 simply felt that the trade-off between security and civil liberties wasn't warranted - or wouldn't be accepted by constitutents when it became known. Faced with having to forgo what they viewed as a vital weapon in the 'war on terror', the Administration seems to have forged ahead with a top secret program that simply was never supposed to come to light. Now that it has, they are left with nothing to justify thier actions except a naked assertion of Constitutional authority.

This explanation has everything we have come to expect from the Bush Administration - Orwellian use of new technology for information gathering, a propensity for secrecy and need-to-know decisionmaking, a bold and cocky use/abuse of power, and a confident assertion of rectitude even in the face of multiple signals that they have gone too far.


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