For reasons unspecified in the report, Goldsmith and Comey became convinced that Bush had no lawful authority to do that.
MARINA and the collection tools that feed it are probably the least known of the NSA’s domestic operations, even among experts who follow the subject closely. Yet they probably capture information about more American citizens than any other, because the volume of e-mail, chats and other Internet communications far exceeds the volume of standard telephone calls.
The NSA calls Internet metadata “digital network information.” Sophisticated analysis of those records can reveal unknown associates of known terrorism suspects. Depending on the methods applied, it can also expose medical conditions, political or religious affiliations, confidential business negotiations and extramarital affairs.
What permits the former and prevents the latter is a complex set of policies that the public is not permitted to see. “You could do analyses that give you more information, but the law and procedures don’t allow that,” a senior U.S. intelligence lawyer said.
In the urgent aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, with more attacks thought to be imminent, analysts wanted to use “contact chaining” techniques to build what the NSA describes as network graphs of people who represented potential threats.
The legal challenge for the NSA was that its practice of collecting high volumes of data from digital links did not seem to meet even the relatively low requirements of Bush’s authorization, which allowed collection of Internet metadata “for communications with at least one communicant outside the United States or for which no communicant was known to be a citizen of the United States,” the NSA inspector general’s report said.
Lawyers for the agency came up with an interpretation that said the NSA did not “acquire” the communications, a term with formal meaning in surveillance law, until analysts ran searches against it. The NSA could “obtain” metadata in bulk, they argued, without meeting the required standards for acquisition.
Goldsmith and Comey did not buy that argument, and a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official said the NSA does not rely on it today.
As soon as surveillance data “touches us, we’ve got it, whatever verbs you choose to use,” the official said in an interview. “We’re not saying there’s a magic formula that lets us have it without having it.”
When Comey finally ordered a stop to the program, Bush signed an order renewing it anyway. Comey, Goldsmith, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and most of the senior Bush appointees in the Justice Department began drafting letters of resignation.