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Surveillance Net Yields Few Suspects

"It's the nature of intelligence that many tips lead nowhere, but you have to go down some blind alleys to find the tips that pay off." -- Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden on Jan. 23. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)

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Valuable information remains valuable even if it comes from one in a thousand intercepts. But government officials and lawyers said the ratio of success to failure matters greatly when eavesdropping subjects are Americans or U.S. visitors with constitutional protection. The minimum legal definition of probable cause, said a government official who has studied the program closely, is that evidence used to support eavesdropping ought to turn out to be "right for one out of every two guys at least." Those who devised the surveillance plan, the official said, "knew they could never meet that standard -- that's why they didn't go through" the court that supervises the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

Michael J. Woods, who was chief of the FBI's national security law unit until 2002, said in an e-mail interview that even using the lesser standard of a "reasonable basis" requires evidence "that would lead a prudent, appropriately experienced person" to believe the American is a terrorist agent. If a factor returned "a large number of false positives, I would have to conclude that the factor is not a sufficiently reliable indicator and thus would carry less (or no) weight."

Bush has said his program covers only overseas calls to or from the United States and stated categorically that "we will not listen inside this country" without a warrant. Hayden said the government goes to the intelligence court when an eavesdropping subject becomes important enough to "drill down," as he put it, "to the degree that we need all communications."

Yet a special channel set up for just that purpose four years ago has gone largely unused, according to an authoritative account. Since early 2002, when the presiding judge of the federal intelligence court first learned of Bush's program, he agreed to a system in which prosecutors may apply for a domestic warrant after warrantless eavesdropping on the same person's overseas communications. The annual number of such applications, a source said, has been in the single digits.

Many features of the surveillance program remain unknown, including what becomes of the non-threatening U.S. e-mails and conversations that the NSA intercepts. Participants, according to a national security lawyer who represents one of them privately, are growing "uncomfortable with the mountain of data they have now begun to accumulate." Spokesmen for the Bush administration declined to say whether any are discarded.

New Imperatives

Recent interviews have described the program's origins after Sept. 11 in what Hayden has called a three-way collision of "operational, technical and legal imperatives."

Intelligence agencies had an urgent mission to find hidden plotters before they could strike again.

About the same time, advances in technology -- involving acoustic engineering, statistical theory and efficient use of computing power to apply them -- offered new hope of plucking valuable messages from the vast flow of global voice and data traffic. And rapidly changing commercial trends, which had worked against the NSA in the 1990s as traffic shifted from satellites to fiber-optic cable, now presented the eavesdroppers with a gift. Market forces were steering as much as a third of global communications traffic on routes that passed through the United States.

The Bush administration had incentive and capabilities for a new kind of espionage, but 23 years of law and White House policy stood in the way.

FISA, passed in 1978, was ambiguous about some of the president's plans, according to current and retired government national security lawyers. But other features of the eavesdropping program fell outside its boundaries.

One thing the NSA wanted was access to the growing fraction of global telecommunications that passed through junctions on U.S. territory. According to former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chaired the Intelligence Committee at the time, briefers told him in Cheney's office in October 2002 that Bush had authorized the agency to tap into those junctions. That decision, Graham said in an interview first reported in The Washington Post on Dec. 18, allowed the NSA to intercept "conversations that . . . went through a transit facility inside the United States."

According to surveys by TeleGeography Inc., nearly all voice and data traffic to and from the United States now travels by fiber-optic cable. About one-third of that volume is in transit from one foreign country to another, traversing U.S. networks along its route. The traffic passes through cable landing stations, where undersea communications lines meet the East and West coasts; warehouse-size gateways where competing international carriers join their networks; and major Internet hubs known as metropolitan area ethernets.

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