Needles in a verbal haystack

February 16th, 2009 by Ilya Marritz

Sometime during the Bush administration, a 1970s-ish malaise settled on the country, and it hasn’t lifted yet. There’s the volatile price of oil…that cop drama about an officer who goes back in time to 1973…everyone in a bad mood about something (I was teething)…and oh yeah, the government is apparently spying on journalists!

This story has been reported widely, but not gotten much traction. In January, former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that the NSA did inded listen in on the communications of all kinds of ordinary Americans, with special attention paid to journalists (hey, who says 24-hour news networks never actually make news?)

TICE: Well, I don’t know what our former president knew or didn’t know. I’m sort of down in the weeds. But the National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications, faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. And that doesn’t — it didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, you know, in the middle of the country, and you never made a communication — foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.

One American who is sure he was spied on is the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, who writes on terrorism. He told NPR’s On The Media (full disclosure: they are work colleagues) that two federal agents actually showed up at his front door to ask him directly about the contents of his conversations:

WRIGHT: And then they began asking if the person on our end of the call, my end, was named Caroline. And that’s my daughter’s name. And they asked, you know, is her name Caroline Brown? And I said, no, she’s, you know, a student at Brown. But I said, her name’s not on any of our phones. How do you know this information? Are you listening to my calls? And they just shut their briefcases and left.

There is so much here to unpack: the question of whether monitoring Wright’s communications was legal then, whether it would be legal today, the fact that federal agents still apparently make housecalls, and the specific way in which communications are unpacked. Tice told Olbermann the NSA’s monitoring a bit like googling for keywords:

TICE: what was done was a sort of an ability to look at the meta data, the signaling data for communications, and ferret that information to determine what communications would ultimately be collected. Basically, filtering out sort of like sweeping everything with that meta data, and then cutting down ultimately what you are going to look at and what is going to be collected, and in the long run have an analyst look at, you know, needles in a haystack for what might be of interest.

It would be interesting to know whether this sort of data sweep gets better results than labor-intensive 24-hour East German surveillance operation depicted in The Lives of Others. Judging from “Caroline Brown”, I’d say maybe not – yet.

(Click here if you need primer on presidential spying on journalists from Kennedy onwards.)

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