NSA surveillance finds thousands of innocent Americans

A “terrorist surveillance program” conducted by the National Security Agency and authorized by President George W. Bush has produced almost nothing of intelligence value while eavesdropping on thousands of innocent Americans who have no connections to terrorism, according to intelligence sources familiar with the operations.

In describing the program, which was first revealed Dec. 15 by the New York Times, President Bush said, “If you’re talking to a member of al-Qaeda, we want to know why.” But fewer than ten people per year are targeted for more intrusive surveillance based on data obtained through the program, according to intelligence sources who spoke to the Washington Post.

The program has touched many more Americans than [5,000]. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, “wash out” most of the leads within days or weeks.

The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush’s circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program’s lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged “reasonable” if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained. — Washington Post

The whole thing’s worth a read. It turns out that the monitoring conducted under this program can’t meet either the “probable cause” standard or the much lower “reasonable basis” standard because of the data-mining techniques used, and officials say that’s why Bush chose to bypass the courts. Consider this statement from a data-mining expert:

Jeff Jonas, now chief scientist at IBM Entity Analytics, invented a data-mining technology used widely in the private sector and by the government. He sympathizes, he said, with an analyst facing an unknown threat who gathers enormous volumes of data “and says, ‘There must be a secret in there.'”

But pattern matching, he argued, will not find it. Techniques that “look at people’s behavior to predict terrorist intent,” he said, “are so far from reaching the level of accuracy that’s necessary that I see them as nothing but civil liberty infringement engines.” — Ibid.

Last month, FBI officials with knowledge of the program reported that almost all of the tips that came out of the program turned out to be innocent Americans with no connection to terrorism.

You know, Bush almost had me convinced that this program just might be legal, but a program which monitors many thousands of Americans, then actually investigates more closely less than 10 of them, really needs to be revisited. Not only is it likely infringing on civil rights, but it’s also likely a gigantic waste of money.

One thought on “NSA surveillance finds thousands of innocent Americans

  • February 6, 2006 at 10:07 am

    “Forgive them father for they know not what they do”
    I think it’s pretty certain at this point that at least a small portion of the government knows exactly what they’re doing. “Civil liberty infringement engines” is a very accurate description. It seems to me the perfect means by which to establish this sort of egregious violation of rights as standard practice.

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