By ERIC LICHTBLAU and JAMES RISEN
December 24, 2005
WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 - The National Security Agency has traced and
analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications
flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping
program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to
current and former government officials.
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and
voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than
the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected
by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication
system's main arteries, they said.
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic
surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation
of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to
streams of domestic and international communications, the officials
The government's collection and analysis of phone and Internet traffic
have raised questions among some law enforcement and judicial
officials familiar with the program. One issue of concern to the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has reviewed some
separate warrant applications growing out of the N.S.A.'s surveillance
program, is whether the court has legal authority over calls outside
the United States that happen to pass through American-based
telephonic "switches," according to officials familiar with the
"There was a lot of discussion about the switches" in conversations
with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the
gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows.
"You're talking about access to such a vast amount of communications,
and the question was, How do you minimize something that's on a switch
that's carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very,
very concerned about that."
Since the disclosure last week of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance
program, President Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his
executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to
the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications
involving people with known links to Al Qaeda.
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians,
besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed
through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of
patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials
describe the program as a large data-mining operation.
The current and former government officials who discussed the program
were granted anonymity because it remains classified.
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: If you ever wondered how N.S.A. first
got started and why, the next issue over the Christmas weekend will
tell you all about it. PAT]