What is the NSA Up To?

WHAT IS THE NSA UP TO?….So what’s the nature of the secret NSA bugging program? Why did the Bush administration feel like they couldn’t continue to seek warrants via the usual FISA procedures? Take a look at the following quotes and you can see a single thread that starts to emerge:

  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, telling reporters why Bush didn’t simply ask Congress to pass a law making the program clearly legal: “We’ve had discussions with members of Congress, certain members of Congress, about whether or not we could get an amendment to FISA, and we were advised that that was not likely to be ? that was not something we could likely get, certainly not without jeopardizing the existence of the program, and therefore, killing the program.”

  • President Bush, answering questions at Monday’s press conference: “We use FISA still….But FISA is for long-term monitoring….There is a difference between detecting so we can prevent, and monitoring. And it’s important to know the distinction between the two….We used the [FISA] process to monitor. But also….we’ve got to be able to detect and prevent.”

  • Senator Jay Rockefeller, in a letter to Dick Cheney after being briefed on the program in 2003: “As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, John Poindexter’s TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the Administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveiliance.”

  • New York Times editor Bill Keller, explaining why the Times finally published its story last week after holding it back for over a year: “In the course of subsequent reporting we satisfied ourselves that we could write about this program ? withholding a number of technical details ? in a way that would not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record.”

None of these quotes makes sense if the NSA program involved nothing more than an expansion of ordinary taps of specific individuals. After all, the FISA court would have approved taps of domestic-to-international calls as quickly and easily as they do with normal domestic wiretaps. What’s more, Congress wouldn’t have had any objection to supporting a routine program expansion; George Bush wouldn’t have explained it with gobbledegook about the difference between monitoring and detecting; Jay Rockefeller wouldn’t have been reminded of TIA; and the Times wouldn’t have had any issues over divulging sensitive technology.

It seems clear that there’s something involved here that goes far beyond ordinary wiretaps, regardless of the technology used. Perhaps some kind of massive data mining, which makes it impossible to get individual warrants? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Lots of people have suggested that the NSA program has something to do with Echelon, a massive project that vacuums up communications of all kinds from all over the globe. The problem is that Echelon has been around for a long time and no one has ever complained about it before ? so whatever this new program is, it’s something more than vanilla Echelon. What’s more, it’s something disturbing enough that a few weeks after 9/11 the administration apparently felt that even Republicans in Congress wouldn’t approve of it. What kind of program is so intrusive that even Republicans, even with 9/11 still freshly in mind, wouldn’t have supported it?