Wiretapping Report Prompts Questions for CIA Appointee

A report on NSA collection of telephone traffic data hits a raw nerve at the White House, and prompts new questions for the President Nominee to head the CIA.

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

This morning Washington awoke to wiretapping again. A story that appeared in this morning's editions of USA Today reported that three major telecommunications companies, AT&T, Verizon and Bell South, provided information to the National Security Agency on domestic phone calls made by millions of Americans. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle demanded more information. Republican Senator Arlen Specter said he wants the telephone companies to testify before Congress and his Senate Judiciary Committee. Shortly after noon President Bush weighed in.

GEORGE W: After September the 11th, I vowed to the American people that our government would do everything within the law to protect them against another terrorist attack. As part of this effort I authorized the National Security Agency to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations. In other words, if al-Qaida or their associates are making calls into the United States or out of the United States, we want to know what they're saying.

Today there are new claims about other ways we are tracking down al-Qaida to prevent attacks on America. I want to make some important points about what the government is doing and what the government is not doing.

First, our intelligence activities strictly target al-Qaida and their known affiliates. Al-Qaida is our enemy, and we want to know their plans. Second, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. Third, the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat. Fourth, the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities.

We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates. So far we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil. As a general matter, every time sensitive intelligence is leaked, it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy. Our most important job is to protect the American people from another attack, and we will do so within the laws of our country. Thank you.

CONAN: The President took no questions on the issue. Joining us now is Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the book Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping. He's with us by phone from his office in New York City. Nice of you to be with us today.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And the timing of this is interesting. It seems that the substance of this story was, in fact, reported several months ago by the New York Times.

RADDEN KEEFE: Well, we've had bits and pieces coming out for several months, yes. The - one of the things that's interesting is that there's a misconception, I think, when we talk about wiretapping or surveillance or eavesdropping, that you have somebody actually listening in on all the phone calls.

The real state of the art, and I think what you're looking at with this program, which has been documented by the Times and the Washington Post, is more link analysis, technologies that don't necessarily listen in to all the phone calls, but try and discern who should we be listening to.

CONAN: And...

RADDEN KEEFE: And that's what you have with the social network analysis.

CONAN: Social network analysis? In other words, what they're looking at is patterns of phone calls, where they're to, how long they last, things like that.

M: Yeah. I mean, in a way it's a bit like six degrees of separation. When the President says if al-Qaida's calling you we want to know why, it's not just that we want to know why. We want to know who else is calling you. And you move out a degree of separation. Who are those people calling? Move out another degree of separation. Who are those people calling?

And by looking at those kinds of patterns, the hope is you figure out who the real suspicious characters that you actually want to sit down and listen in on are.

CONAN: And so, therefore, they're using this pattern traffic analysis, by getting all of this data, and again, not phone calls but data about the phone calls, to look for people that they may want to then either ask for a warrant to eavesdrop on or, in the case of somebody calling overseas or getting calls from overseas, maybe without a warrant.

RADDEN KEEFE: Precisely.

CONAN: Yet the President says this is not data mining. Is he right?

RADDEN KEEFE: No. I mean I think that he's sort of on a fine line between disingenuous and dishonest when he says that. I mean this is classic data mining.

You have to think of it as sort of a mile wide and an inch deep. So on the one hand, this is kind of reassuring, from a privacy point of view. It's not that innocent Americans are having people listen in on their phone calls, and in that respect he's absolutely right. I mean, our privacy is not violated to the same degree that it might be. But it's also a mile wide. You're talking about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people whose phone calls are being processed through this system.

CONAN: Is it legal?

RADDEN KEEFE: This is a gray area. I mean, I think that it's, you could make a more plausible argument about the legality of this kind of operation than you could if it was actually listening in on phone calls. So the whole legal framework in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has to do with actually intercepting and examining communications.

This is almost more what in law enforcement you would call a pen register. Where it's basically as though I were to take your phone bill and just look at the numbers you call and times. And you could make an argument that that is legal.

CONAN: And, we always see that on Law and Order as getting the LUDs, the phone records, and of course they do provide useful information, but not determinative information. Is this an effective technique?

RADDEN KEEFE: It's hard to say. I mean, we do know - some evidence has come out that of the tens of thousands of tips that the NSA program generated, they would give these tips to the FBI. And the FBI would chase down these tips. And of the tens of thousands of tips in the last few years, fewer than ten actually ended up producing real evidence of real terrorists.

Now on the one hand that seems ineffective. On the other hand, I was actually just speaking, several days ago, with Admiral Bobby Inman, former head of the NSA, and I said precisely that to him. And he said, oh, but you've got it all wrong. From our point of view, in the signals collection business, if you go through 10,000 tips but you manage to find ten good leads, that's not bad odds.

So there's almost a certain amount of inefficiency built into the system. It's a low-yield business.

CONAN: Yet, I guess maybe Admiral Inman is right, every once in awhile you can strike gold.

RADDEN KEEFE: You can. I mean the question this begs, of course, both from an efficacy point view but also from a privacy point of view, is what happens when you have hundreds of thousands of red flags. I mean, how many names are going to end up in these enormous databases of potential terrorists?

CONAN: Is it a surprise that the telephone companies are cooperating with this?

RADDEN KEEFE: It's not to me, certainly, because historically this has actually been more the norm than the exception. I mean, dating back to the earliest abuses of the NSA, before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was ever passed, you had high-level secret cooperation between telephone companies and the government.

I think in this case it may actually prove to have been a big mistake for the NSA to enlist private companies, because the private companies may be called to task. They have shareholders. They will be subjected to a level of scrutiny that, I mean, the government could, in a way, always has the get out of jail free card of government secrecy. This is not necessarily something that we will afford to private companies.

CONAN: And in fact, one company, Qwest, said they have not cooperated with this and did not turn over their records.

RADDEN KEEFE: Yeah, exactly. You have some people now suggesting that it could be a badge of pride for a telecommunications carrier. They could say they're FISA compliant.

CONAN: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And that's going to be coming up again. Perhaps the reason this caused such a kafuffle today here in Washington, D.C., is the timing of this report. And that, of course, relates to the nomination to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of General Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency.

RADDEN KEEFE: Well, and this is one of the interesting things. I mean, this is such a difficult issue for Americans and one that raises such conflicting emotions. Some people have suggested that the whole reason that the president dismissed Porter Goss at this juncture and promoted or sought to promote Michael Hayden was because he wanted this debate to happen again. Because he felt that in advance of the congressional elections, this was an issue that looked good for Republicans, law and order, protecting the country, doing what you need to in order to survive in the war on terror.

What's interesting is that now, with this USA Today story, you have a significant backlash. And I think that a lot of Americans are going to be asking themselves how far, exactly, are we going to let these people go?

CONAN: And one final question and that is, when the president said, first of all, leaks of this sort of information damage national security. And when we're asking about other ways we're tracking down al-Qaida, should we read that as essentially confirmation of the story?

RADDEN KEEFE: I wouldn't necessarily. I think he was careful, as people often are, not to either confirm or deny. I should also say that I'm pretty dubious of the suggestion that these revelations in USA Today are going to do anything that would aid terrorists. I'm not sure that any terrorist really cares whether or not you go to get a FISA warrant or don't in order to look at the traffic of his communications.

CONAN: But, well, we've never heard an explanation, at least not in public. And perhaps when General Hayden's nomination comes before the Intelligence Committee next week, as far as we understand it, he can provide an explanation of how revealing the methods here would damage national security.

But I suspect we may not.

RADDEN KEEFE: I think you're probably right. As the old joke, NSA doesn't stand for National Security Agency. It stands for Never Say Anything.

CONAN: Patrick Radden Keefe is a fellow at the Century Foundation, author of the book CHATTER: DISPATCHES FROM THE SECRET WORLD OF GLOBAL EAVESDROPPING. He joined us today by phone from his office in New York City. And for more on the NSA's eavesdropping program you can visit our website at www.NPR.org.

And Patrick Radden Keefe, thanks very much for being with us.

RADDEN KEEFE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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