NSA shared domestic intercepts with other agencies

Happy New Year!

The National Security Agency, authorized by executive order shortly after September 11, 2001, to conduct intelligence activities against Americans on American soil, shared information from those intercepts with other government agencies and the military, who then went on to correlate the data with other databases and conduct operations, according to sources familiar with the operations.

The surveillance program intercepts overseas communications to and from Americans when they communicate with known or suspected terrorists, or others who may be linked to known or suspected terrorists.

Intelligence reports from the surveillance program are shared with NSA’s customers, including for instance the Defense Intelligence Agency. Under the minimization procedures NSA uses, the names of U.S. persons are omitted from the reports, but the agency receiving the reports can request the names of those persons if they are needed to understand and assess the intelligence.

These intelligence reports can be shared with other government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

At least one of those organizations, the DIA, has used NSA information as the basis for carrying out surveillance of people in the country suspected of posing a threat, according to two sources. A DIA spokesman said the agency does not conduct such domestic surveillance but would not comment further. Spokesmen for the FBI, the CIA and the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, declined to comment on the use of NSA data.

Since the revelation last month that President Bush had authorized the NSA to intercept communications inside the United States, public concern has focused primarily on the legality of the NSA eavesdropping. Less attention has been paid to, and little is known about, how the NSA’s information may have been used by other government agencies to investigate American citizens or to cross-check with other databases. In the 1960s and 1970s, the military used NSA intercepts to maintain files on U.S. peace activists, revelations of which prompted Congress to restrict the NSA from intercepting communications of Americans.

Today’s NSA intercepts yield two broad categories of information, said a former administration official familiar with the program: “content,” which would include transcripts of a phone call or e-mail, and “non-content,” which would be records showing, for example, who in the United States was called by, or was calling, a number in another country thought to have a connection to a terrorist group. At the same time, NSA tries to limit identifying the names of Americans involved.

“NSA can make either type of information available to other [intelligence] agencies where relevant, but with appropriate masking of its origin,” meaning that the source of the information and method of getting it would be concealed, the former official said.

Agencies that get the information can use it to conduct “data mining,” or looking for patterns or matches with other databases that they maintain, which may or may not be specifically geared toward detecting terrorism threats, he said. “They are seeking to separate the known from the unknown, relationships or associations,” he added.

The NSA would sometimes monitor telephones, e-mails or fax communications in cases where individuals in the United States — and sometimes people they contacted — were linked to an alleged foreign terrorist group, officials have said. The NSA, officials said, limited its decisions to follow-up with more electronic surveillance on an individual to those cases where there was some apparent link to terrorist sources.

But other agencies, one former official said, have used phone numbers or other records obtained from NSA in combination with wide-ranging databases to look for links and associations. “What data sets are included is a policy decision [made by individual agencies] when they involve other than terrorist links,” he said.

DIA personnel stationed inside the United States went further on occasion, conducting physical surveillance of people or vehicles identified as a result of NSA intercepts, said two sources familiar with the operations, although the DIA said it does not conduct such activities.

The military personnel — some of whose findings were reported to the Northern Command in Colorado — were employed as part of the Pentagon’s growing post-Sept. 11, 2001, domestic intelligence activity based on the need to protect Defense Department facilities and personnel from terrorist attacks, the sources said. — Washington Post

Additionally, two years ago the deputy to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to reauthorize the NSA domestic surveillance program. James B. Comey, who was acting attorney general while Ashcroft was in the hospital for gall bladder surgery, refused to authorize several aspects of the classified program, the New York Times reported Sunday.

That prompted two of President Bush’s top aides – Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now the attorney general – to make an emergency visit to George Washington University Hospital to review the program with Mr. Ashcroft during what aides have described as a difficult recovery, the officials said. . . .

Accounts from other officials differed as to exactly what was said at the meeting at the hospital. Some officials indicated that Mr. Ashcroft, like his deputy, was also reluctant to give his signoff to continuing with aspects of the program in light of concerns among some senior government officials about the program’s legality and its operational controls.

It was unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Mr. Ashcroft to approve the program or whether the White House moved ahead without his concurrence. What is known is that in early 2004, about the time of the hospital meeting, the White House suspended parts of the surveillance program for several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the National Security Agency on how the program was used, in part to guard against possible abuses.

The Justice Department’s concerns appear to have led, at least in part, to the suspension, and it was the Justice Department that oversaw an audit conducted on the program.

The audit examined a selection of cases to see how the N.S.A. went about determining that it had probable cause to believe that someone in the United States, including American citizens, had sufficient ties to Al Qaeda to justify the extraordinary step of eavesdropping on their phone calls and e-mail messages without a court warrant. That review is not known to have found any instances of documented abuses.

Officials with knowledge of the hospital meeting said it marked a critical juncture in the N.S.A. program and underscored questions about its operations, how it was overseen and what its future would be. Those questions are likely to be central to a Congressional hearing planned by Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee. — New York Times

At least somebody is asking the right questions.

As I’ve said before, nothing about the revelations about this program so far can really help the terrorists that it targets. The only thing that keeping its existence secret does is to keep George W. Bush from being impeached.

We absolutely must keep watch over what the terrorists are doing and stay ahead of them. But we can’t sacrifice the rule of law, and our own civil rights, in the process. Otherwise, the U.S. will become no better than any third world dictatorship.

One thought on “NSA shared domestic intercepts with other agencies

  • January 1, 2006 at 8:34 am
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    I’ve been blogging about this spying issue.

    Republicans have done a great job creating cynicism and apathy. So many people have been turned off to the process by Bush and Co., that its created the perfect minority-rule opportunity. My bet is that people have just about had enough and the sleeping giant will awaken to cast a vote in 2006. Beware the populist backlash. Visit http://mymountain.blogspot.com for a Christian liberal perspective.

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