NSA spied on journalists during wiretapping program - an analysis of the hype

Last week, on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”, former NSA Analyst Robert Tice reported that the NSA spied on journalists as part of their Wiretapping program to root out terrorism.  The media has a way of editing/hyping stories, so let’s play Devil’s Advocate, and examine what the interview actually charges for violations of privacy rights.

First, Mr. Olbermann points out several inconsistencies within the Bush Administration’s handling of wiretapping.  Originally, the wiretaps required court orders.  Then interception of international communications are only for people with clear and known links to terrorist networks.  Mr. Tice states from his observations that ordinary citizens were also monitored:

… the National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications, faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. And that doesn’t — it didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, you know, in the middle of the country, and you never made a communication — foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications…

There is a bit of media hype to what Mr. Tice points out.  This has nothing to do with choosing the journalists’ communications or spying on domestic citizens.  This has to do with networks and the way modern monitoring works.

In the olden days, a telephone communication created an actual circuit aptly called a circuit switched network – one pair of wires connected from one side of the call to the other.  To listen in, a law enforcement official simply plugged themselves in between the single channel.  From the phone company’s standpoint, individual cir is somewhat inefficient and doesn’t scale well.  Eventually the phone systems went to what is called a packet switched network.  This method dices the communications into pieces, shipping them to the end caller through whatever direction they will reach the other end.  The pieces don’t need to follow the same path throughout the call.  In some communications, understanding the next piece depends on the previous piece.  In other words, it’s all or nothing.

Now follow what these facts imply: the tapping of terrorist communications requires gathering more than simply a couple of wires that cross the Atlantic.     Tice himself points out the difficulty of this situation:

Well, it’s actually, even for the NSA, it’s impossible to literally collect all communications. Americans tend to be a chatty group. We have the best computers at the agency, but certainly not that good.

So instead, the agency would inspect all of the “meta data”, or signaling information such as phone numbers, IP addresses, call length and the like.  The meta data allowed removal of numerous communications that don’t fit a profile so that analysts such as Mr. Tice may review a more manageable amount of information.  Mr. Tice recalled:

… in one of the operations that I was in, we looked at organizations just supposedly so that we would not target them. So that we knew where they were, so as not to have a problem with them.

Now, what I was finding out, though, is that the collection on those organizations was 24/7, and you know, 365 days a year, and it made no sense. … But an organization that was collected on were U.S. news organizations and reporters and journalists.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review affirmed the wiretaps were in fact not in conflict with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements for collection of foreign intelligence of American citizens.  This was a focused ruling, and does nothing with respect to other rights.  This includes such Constitutional heavyweights as the First Amendment, which directly references journalists:  “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the freedom of the press.”

In the second part of the interview, Olbermann cites the New Yorker Magazine article last year where, through a series of intertwined relationships, reporter Lawrence Wright’s daughter ended up as a person of interest connected to terrorism:

…the FBI had asked (Wright) about phone calls he made to a British lawyer who was representing former jihadist, calls the FBI thought were made by Wright‘s college aged daughter. More than wire-tapping was at work here. The name of Wright‘s daughters was not in the phone records. So how the hell, Wright demanded, did the FBI know his daughter‘s name.

It sounds like the NSA program worked.  The FBI handles domestic federal investigations.  Intelligence ended up in the FBI’s hands regarding an overseas, foreign telephone call discussing someone connected to a terrorist, albeit indirectly.  With the popularity of Universities in the 9/11 bombings and several cases since (a certain University of South Florida professor springs to mind), an investigator/analyst somewhere connected a couple of dots incorrectly.

The next rhetorical question: does the threat of being spied on cut short or curtail (definition of abridge) journalists.  I’m sure there’s a legal debate there somewhere.  As for putting together financial records, the government’s been tracking large money transfers for quite some time in an effort to fight drug money laundering, mob racketeering, and a whole host of other reasons.  Marrying that information to the wiretaps could limit false positives?

It’s all a slippery slope, and with the appointment of less conservative  judges over the next few years, maybe privacy rights will slide back towards those of the individual.  One thing’s for sure, there haven’t been any domestic terror acts in the last 8 years.  At what cost and whether it’s just luck is another story.

Here are links to the Olbermann/Tice video (part 1 and part 2) and transcripts (part 1 and part 2).


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