USA Today is reporting that the NSA is collecting telephone calling information from the phone companies. "The program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity." The agency's goal is "'to create a database of every call ever made.'"
Such traffic analysis and pattern analysis is one of the most important tools of a proper communications intelligence program. When such a database is constructed, it is then possible to identify communications patterns that might be sinister and in need of further scrutiny. This sort of information has been collected by intelligence services since electronic communication began. Communications intelligence has historically been one of the most important cards in the US strategic poker deck: read John Prados's Combined Fleet Decoded to learn how traffic and pattern analysis helped shorten World War II.
I do not find much sinister about such a program: but my bias is to give out military and intelligence authorities whatever they need. The usual suspects, though, are going to howl. These are the same folks who scream about our vanishing civil liberties in the same breath as they pillory the Bush administration for not preventing 9/11 or catching BinLaden.
But that's a subject for another time. . .I don't really find the USA Today story to even be news. I think anybody who thinks at all about such matters would have assumed that such a program was in place. What I find interesting is the timing. . .
The CIA director has just been fired, and his replacement, a man of long experience in the NSA, who is one of the masterminds of post- 9/11 communications intelligence programs just like this one -- has been designated. Not a week after President Bush taps General Hayden, this story, built on leaks from inside, appears.
The Washington intelligence community has been leaking for some time. All the leaks, as others have commented, have occurred at a time of maximum political sensitivity for the intelligence community. It's obvious that there is a significant cadre of disgruntled middle-management types talking to the press. Is there more to it than that ? Is this an organized leaking campaign ? Who is doing the organizing ?
It appears that a group of people have decided to try to swing the November elections by a calculated policy of leaks. The consequences of such a creeping coup against administration policy cannot be good for the US intelligence community, or for the country.