Friday, January 27, 2006

Many NSA Questions Still Unresolved

There has been a lot of talk this week about the NSA wiretapping scandal but except for some information embarrassing to the administration, not much new has been added (and if I missed something, feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment below). We still don't know much about exactly what happened, exactly what the issues are, and why the NSA is avoiding the FISA courts. For me, a key issue remains that it appears the NSA was giving the FBI thousands of tips a month that basically went nowhere.

Sometimes, it's useful to go back to a story before the Washington spinners begin to create too many distractions. Here's an article by Shane Harris from a week ago that originally appeared in the National Journal; this is one of the better overviews I've seen but I'll quote only two paragraphs:

The New York Times reported this week that "in the anxious months after the September 11 attacks, the [NSA] began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and names to the FBI, in search of terrorists." Some of that information led to Americans inside the United States. It appears that the NSA was handing over just about any information it could find that might be useful to investigators. The Times reported that the NSA eventually provided thousands of tips a month.

The agency conducted these activities without presidential authorization for at least three months following 9/11. In early 2002, Bush authorized the current program, which, he has said, targets only known members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, and people linked to them. But even before Bush's order -- which remains classified -- the NSA's work was evolving from targeted interceptions to broader sifting and sorting of huge volumes of communications data.

Notice the classic Bush Administration parsing of words: "targets only known members of Al Qaida and affiliated groups, and people linked to them." 'Affiliated groups' and 'people linked to them' can be very vague, particularly if one is tracing calls along a chain. And then we have the problem that the people defining the legal issues here are the same legal chameleons who defined Bush's torture policy.

The issue is and will remain from this point on a question of trust. In the 1970s, it took several investigations and years to restore trust in our government to a somewhat reasonable level. No amount of spin can avoid that issue.

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