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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Uncovering another large data-mining operation

While you exchanged presents and had some more egg nog, the New York Times published an another NSA story on Christmas Eve:

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said....

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.

Of course, this is something the Israelis have allegedly been doing since the 90s:

Fox News, beginning mid-December, reported a four-part series on alleged Israeli spying on the US telecommunication systems through firms which provide telephone billing and assist FBI wiretaps. Recently the series was withdrawn by Fox News without explanation. The series has been recovered from private archives for publication here.

When the series first appeared it seemed to be another case of Israel bashing, in particular the parts that rehashed years-old allegations (we've linked to a 1996 GAO report cited by Fox, and other alleged participants' Web sites). And the series may well be calculated disinformation, if not by Fox then by its sources.

However, Fox's unexplained yanking the series is worth noting. Except for a few comments on the Net, there has been no mainline media follow-up on the reason for the yank. If Fox found that the reports are in error, that is the sort of thing that usually brings heat from competitors. If the withdrawal was due to government intervention that would indeed be news, but hardly unprecedented these days. If the yank was due to private intervention that too would be worth learning about -- who, when, why.

Well, as for the NSA program, Michelle Malkin covers the new details from A to D:

'Twas the day before Christmas
And all through the Times
Hysteria reigned over
Bush's "impeachable crimes"....

President Bush's critics have argued that the NSA program obviously violates FISA. The latest gotcha!-infused revelations, they will undoubtedly claim, only bolster their case.

Well, not so fast.

As an informed Power Line reader suggested yesterday in this post from Scott Johnson, a program that intercepts massive volumes of e-mails and phone calls may not violate FISA in the same way that interception of a smaller number of communications might. That's because of the way that FISA defines electronic surveillance....

Anyone remember when Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton said the Able Danger data-mining program was not "historically significant"?

Do they think so now?