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Terrorist surveillance program

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Overview Edit

In December 2005 news reports appeared for the first time revealing the existence of a classified National Security Agency terrorist surveillance program, dating back to at least 2002, involving the domestic collection, analysis, and sharing of telephone call information.[1] Controversy over the program raised congressional concerns about both the prevalence of homeland security data mining and the capacity of the country's intelligence and law enforcement agencies to adequately analyze and share counterterrorism information. The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held two hearings regarding the issue on February 6 and February 28, 2006.

Although details about the program are classified, statements by President Bush and Administration officials following the initial revelation of the program suggested that the NSA terrorist surveillance program focused only on international calls, with a specific goal of targeting the communications of al Qaeda and related terrorist groups, and affiliated individuals. It was also suggested that the program was reviewed and reauthorized on a regular basis and that key Members of Congress had been briefed about the program.

In his weekly radio address on December 17, 2005, President Bush stated:

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.[2]

President Bush also stated during his radio address:

The activities I authorized are reviewed approximately every 45 days. Each review is based on a fresh intelligence assessment of terrorist threats to the continuity of our government and the threat of catastrophic damage to our homeland. During each assessment, previous activities under the authorization are reviewed. The review includes approval by our nation’s top legal officials, including the Attorney General and the Counsel to the President. I have reauthorized this program more than 30 times since the September the 11th attacks, and I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups.[3]

In a January 27, 2006, public release statement, the U.S. Department of Justice stated:

The NSA program is narrowly focused, aimed only at international calls and targeted at al Qaeda and related groups. Safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of ordinary Americans.
  • The program only applies to communications where one party is located outside of the United States.
  • The NSA terrorist surveillance program described by the President is only focused on members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Communications are only intercepted if there is a reasonable basis to believe that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda.
  • The program is designed to target a key tactic of al Qaeda: infiltrating foreign agents into the United States and controlling their movements through electronic communications, just as it did leading up to the September 11 attacks.
  • The NSA activities are reviewed and reauthorized approximately every 45 days. In addition, the General Counsel and Inspector General of the NSA monitor the program to ensure that it is operating properly and that civil liberties are protected, and the intelligence agents involved receive extensive training.[4]

On February 6, 2006, in his written statement for a Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing, U.S. Attorney General Gonzalez stated:

The terrorist surveillance program targets communications where one party to the communication is outside the U.S. and the government has “reasonable grounds to believe” that at least one party to the communication is a member or agent of al Qaeda, or an affiliated terrorist organization. This program is reviewed and reauthorized by the President approximately every 45 days. The Congressional leadership, including the leaders of the Intelligence Committees of both Houses of Congress, has been briefed about this program more than a dozen times since 2001. The program provides the United States with the early warning system we so desperately needed on September 10th.[5]

In May 2006 news reports alleged additional details regarding the NSA terrorist surveillance program, renewing concerns about the possible existence of inappropriately authorized domestic surveillance. According to these reports, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the NSA contracted with AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth to collect information about domestic telephone calls handled by these companies. The NSA, in turn, reportedly used this information to conduct “social network analysis” to map relationships between people based on their communications.[6]

It remains unclear precisely what information, if any, was collected and provided to the NSA. Some reports suggest that personally identifiable information (i.e., names, addresses, etc.) were not included. It also has been reported that the content of the calls (what was spoken) was not collected. Since the emergence of these news reports, BellSouth has issued a public statement saying that according to an internal review conducted by the company, "no such [alleged] contract exists” and that the company has “not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA."[7]

Similarly, Verizon has issued a public statement saying that due to the classified nature of the NSA program, "Verizon cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to the classified NSA program," but that "Verizon's wireless and wireline companies did not provide to NSA customer records or call data, local or otherwise."[8] Together, AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth are the three largest telecommunications companies in the United States, serving more than 200 million customers, accounting for hundreds of billions of calls each year.[9]

References Edit

  1. Peter Baker, "President Says He Ordered NSA Domestic Spying," Wash. Post, Dec. 18, 2005, at A1; Walter Pincus, "NSA Gave Other U.S. Agencies Information From Surveillance," Wash. Post, Jan. 1, 2006, at A8.
  2. President George W. Bush, “President’s Radio Address,” Dec. 17, 2005 (full-text).
  3. Id.
  4. U.S. Department of Justice, "The NSA Program to Detect and Prevent Terrorist Attacks Myth v. Reality," Jan. 27, 2006 (full-text).
  5. Hon. Alberto Gonzalez, Testimony before the Senate Comm. on the Judiciary, Wartime Executive Power and the NSA's Surveillance Authority (Feb. 6 2006) (full-text).
  6. Leslie Cauley, "NSA has Massive Database of Americans’ Phone Calls," USA Today, May 11, 2006, at 1A; Stephen Dinan & Charles Hurt, "Bush Denies Report of 'Trolling' by NSA," Wash. Times, May 12, 2006, at A1; Barton Gellman & Arshad Mohammed, "Data on Phone Calls Monitored," Wash. Post, May 12, 2006, at A1.
  7. BellSouth Corp., "BellSouth Statement on Government Data Collection" (May 15, 2006) (full-text).
  8. Verizon, "Verizon Issues Statement on NSA News Media Coverage" (May 16, 2006) (full-text).
  9. Barton Gellman & Arshad Mohammed, "Data on Phone Calls Monitored," Wash. Post, May 12, 2006, at A1.

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