An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service
May 12, 2006
It turns out that since shortly after 9/11 the National Security Agency has been secretly amassing the calling information of tens of millions of subscribers to three major phone companies, according to USA Today.
The three companies covertly cooperating with the NSA - AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth - are said to have an aggregate 200 million subscribers. A fourth company, Qwest, declined, insisting that the NSA first get a court warrant, which the agency refused to do, said USA Today.
The companies provided the NSA only the phone numbers - no names, addresses or personal information - but, as reporter Leslie Cauley pointed out, "the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information." In theory, the agency could track down the calls Cauley made to report the story.
The reasons for building a database for all the calls Americans made in the last four and a half years are murky. It falls into the category of "data mining," a gray area of the law with grave privacy implications. A public backlash caused the Pentagon to abandon a plan for extensive data mining.
The White House insists that the secret program is legal and necessary and that the relevant members of Congress have been appropriately briefed. But Sens. Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy, the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the Judiciary committee, didn't sound like lawmakers who had been briefed.
Asked Leahy, "Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al Qaeda? These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything ... Where does it stop?" The Senate will get a chance to ask when former NSA chief Michael Hayden comes up for confirmation to head the CIA.
In December, it was disclosed that Bush, invoking emergency powers that it's not clear he has, had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on calls and e-mails between people in the United States and overseas without obtaining warrants under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act as the law requires.
At the time, the White House indicated the eavesdropping was confined to communications in which one party was suspected of having terrorist connections. Now we know that the eavesdropping was much, much broader.
What else is the Bush administration not telling us?
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.