How The NSA Uses Metadata To Fight Terrorism
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now to news - first reported by the Guardian - that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. citizens. The Guardian obtained a copy of a secret order requesting the records from the big telecom company Verizon. We're going to focus now on what exactly this kind of metadata, as it's called, includes and what intelligence agencies can learn from it. And joining me is J. Kirk Wiebe. He worked for the NSA as an intelligence analyst for more than three decades and helped pioneer the way the agency collects and analyzes electronic information. Welcome.
J. KIRK WIEBE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: To be clear, we're not talking in this case about listening to phone calls. This isn't wiretapping. What kind of information are we talking about here?
WIEBE: Well, it's really what you see when you get a phone bill. And as you know, when you get a phone bill, you can request specific detailed information about all the calls you made, to the numbers they went to, when they were made down to the minute. This goes even beyond that.
SIEGEL: Well, you could do lots of things - or at least a few things with all that information in the database. One, if you have somebody who's a suspect out there and has a phone number, you could find out if my phone logs ever show that I connected with his phone.
WIEBE: Absolutely. And that's how the system would basically work. You would stash the data in a database, and an analyst, presumably based on a tip-off, would then query the data to find out with whom you had been in communication. And that includes pager data, texting data, not just actual voice phone calls.
SIEGEL: Well, that part I get. But I gather there's another dimension which is looking for broad patterns of calls.
SIEGEL: This is serious? You can really infer things from big patterns of calls?
WIEBE: Absolutely. There's a science, if you will, of intelligence called traffic analysis. It's concerned with communications and looking for patterns in communications that can be associated with meaning that's useful to get some insight in what someone's intentions are.
SIEGEL: But if I understand this properly, I mean, what the NSA seems to be doing here is they're deciding that in order to find the one dangerous needle, they must have access to the entire haystack.
SIEGEL: And there's no way that you could do some kind of predetermination of what part of the haystack you should be looking at?
WIEBE: You know...
SIEGEL: You have to have access to everybody's phone logs or else it doesn't work.
WIEBE: That's right. And I would actually - while I might be viewed as an adversary of the NSA because I'm a whistleblower...
SIEGEL: You're a whistleblower, yeah.
WIEBE: ...I actually agree with the concept, much like a writer writes a book. If I only get one or two chapters of the book, I can appreciate what the book represents. It's always the endeavor of the intelligence analyst to find out as much about a target or an entity as possible to raise the confidence level of a finding.
SIEGEL: But I want you to answer this question that I and I think other Americans might have of the intelligence agencies, which is: what I say in a phone call, I presume to be private. We've now reached a point where whatever number I dial or how long I remain in contact with that number, I should have no expectation of privacy about that. The government has a routine court order that recycles saying, we can look at that.
WIEBE: Yes, yes. And I disagree with the government's interpretation completely. We can go back into constitution law, but I think all of us were brought up believing that the Fourth Amendment was a pretty good amendment, and it was worded in the way that it is for a reason.
SIEGEL: Limiting search and seize.
WIEBE: Yes. Now, unfortunately, people like the former director of NSA, Michael Hayden, and others have recast the Fourth Amendment from one that is based on probable cause in presenting evidence for subsequent invasion of privacy to one of reasonable suspicion. That phrase has not been defined except by some managers controlling this information about you and me. And that's what I find wrong. We have not had the public discussion or agreement by the American people to define what that means and what the ramifications of that are in terms of the government's ability to view into our private lives.
SIEGEL: Mr. Wiebe, thanks a lot for talking with us.
WIEBE: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's J. Kirk Wiebe, for many years an intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency.