What the NSA Was Probably Doing

I’m going to make an informed guess on what the National Security Agency (NSA) was authorized to do by President George W. Bush. Something which would have been difficult to get through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and which would have possibly generated the comments about “high-tech” stuff made by Bush, Secretaray of State Condoleeza Rice, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) who wrote in a note to Vice President Dick Cheney after an Intelligence Committee briefing on the issue that “As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney.”

The NSA is known to have enormous banks of computers that analyze voice and data communications throughout the world. Their computers can tap phones and satellite uplinks, cell phone communications, pretty much any transmitted electronic data, unscramble it, translate it, and process it for key words or phrases. There’s no real secret there.

But if you control the NSA (which the executive branch does) and you get a vague idea (which the executive branch does) that there’s some terrorist threat in San Francisco, you’re probably going to order the agency to scoop up every bit of communications data it can in a portion of SF, run it through the computers, and see if anything pops out.

The problem, of course, is that along with any actual intelligence (and let’s face it, the cases under the Ashcroft and Gonzales Justice Departments haven’t exactly been stunners) you’re going to be picking up material on the lives of a swath of people in the area you’re surveilling. I think that’s something the FISA courts wouldn’t have put up with. And I doubt it’s something that the American people would stand for.