The volume of information gathered from telephone and Internet communications by the National Security Agency without court-approved warrants was much larger than the White House has acknowledged, The New York Times reported Saturday.
Citing current and former government officials, the Times said the information was collected by tapping directly into some of the U.S. telecommunication system’s main arteries. The officials said the NSA won the cooperation of telecommunications companies to obtain access to both domestic and international communications without first gaining warrants.
A former telecommunications technology manager told the Times that industry leaders have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Searching for patterns
Government and industry officials with knowledge of the program told the newspaper the NSA sought to analyze communications patterns to gather clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, as well as the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages.
Calls to and from Afghanistan were of particular interest to the NSA, the Times said. This so-called “pattern analysis” on calls within the United States would often otherwise require a warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.
“We're not going to comment on news stories that may or may not focus on classified intelligence operations as part of the war on terror,” White House spokesman Allen Abney said on Saturday. “In a broader context, this administration has fought and will continue to fight the war on terror while trying to uphold the individual liberties of Americans.”
President Bush and his aides have said his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to monitoring international phone and e-mail communications linked to people with connections to al-Qaida. What has not been acknowledged, according to the Times, is that NSA technicians combed large amounts of phone and Internet traffic seeking patterns pointing to terrorism suspects.
Feds sought access to telecom gateways
Some officials described the program as a large data mining operation, the Times said, and described it as much larger than the White House has acknowledged.
Several officials said senior government officials went to the nation’s big telecommunications companies to get access to switches that act as gateways between U.S. and international communications.
Many calls going from one foreign country to another are routed through U.S. switches and a communications expert who once worked at the NSA said in recent years government officials have been encouraging the telecommunications industry to bring more international traffic through U.S.-based switches.
The officials who spoke to the newspaper requested anonymity because the program’s details remain classified. Bush administration officials declined to comment on the operation’s technical details, the Times said.