May 12, 2006 1:20 PM PDT
FAQ: NSA's data mining explained
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Q: What Republicans have publicly criticized the NSA spying program?
The loudest outcry has come from Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate Pennyslvania Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Specter said late last month that he was prepared to yank federal funding for the program unless the Bush Administration supplies his committee with enough information to determine whether it's legal.
New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, who serves on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, was among the first Republicans to voice her concerns about the program publicly and to call for a deeper inquiry.
Q: What has Sen. Specter done so far in response to the program?
In addition to convening four Judiciary Committee hearings aimed at vetting the program, Specter has made a public display of his skepticism about the wiretapping's constitutionality. He has repeatedly chided the Bush administration for failing to provide the necessary details that senators need to determine the program's propriety and has threatened to withhold funding for it.
He is also pushing a piece of legislation that would force the attorney general to take any existing electronic surveillance program back to the FISA court for scrutiny.
Q: What lawsuits have been filed in response to the NSA surveillance program?
Soon after the program's existence came to light, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the NSA directly in a Michigan federal court. The complaint, filed on behalf of "a diverse group of prominent journalists, scholars, attorneys and national nonprofit organizations who frequently communicate by telephone and e-mail with people outside the United States," asks that the secret wiretaps be declared unconstitutional.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation followed later in January with its own class-action suit against AT&T, alleging that the telecommunications giant opened up its facilities to the NSA in violation of the Constitution and federal wiretapping law.
But if the U.S. government gets its way, the court action won't proceed. Late last month, the Justice Department filed a document registering its intent to assert the " military and state secrets privilege" after EFF revealed it has uncovered potentially confidential documents describing a "dragnet" scheme by AT&T.
One lawsuit has already effectively ended. The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the Justice Department in January for allegedly refusing to turn over documents related to the surveillance program in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. A federal judge ultimately ordered the government to turn over the documents by a prescribed deadline.
Q: What do Americans think of this?
According to the latest surveys, most people don't seem to mind. An ABC News-Washington Post poll published Friday found that 63 percent of the 502 random Americans surveyed found the NSA's collection of phone call records either "strongly" or "somewhat acceptable."
In that same survey, 66 percent of the respondents said it wouldn't bother them if the NSA had possession of their call logs. At the same time, just a narrow majority--51 percent--said they approved of the way President Bush has handled privacy concerns as the government investigates terrorism.
Q: What's going to happen next in Congress?
In the short term, more hearings are likely. Sen. Specter has already said he plans to call in executives from the telecommunications companies reportedly involved in the NSA program. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has asked the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to hold hearings.
House Democrats introduced a bill Thursday called the Lawful Intelligence and Surveillance of Terrorists in an Emergency by NSA, or the Listen Act. It says that covert attempts to spy on Americans or collect telephone and e-mail records must be approved by a court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Q: But haven't Democrats introduced bills before without any success?
Yes. Especially in the House of Representatives, the Republican majority enjoys a near-absolute ability to set the agenda. A number of other bills dealing with the surveillance program have been introduced but have been stuck in committee.
A mostly Democratic-backed House proposal, for instance, called the NSA Oversight Act would obligate the president to issue a classified report on how many Americans have been the subject of electronic surveillance under the NSA program.
A bill introduced by Sen. Specter would explicitly require the government to receive approval of present and future electronic surveillance programs from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Another bill, introduced by New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, proposes awarding court relief to citizens who can provide evidence that they've refrained from electronic communications because of a "reasonable fear" they will be tapped.
Can the NSA conduct wiretaps without explicitly asking for phone records?
Yes. It's hardly a secret that the NSA specializes in electronic surveillance, called communications intelligence in the vernacular of spies. Author James Bamford's 1982 book "The Puzzle Palace" documented how the NSA created hundreds of "intercept stations"--ultrasophisticated, hypersensitive radio receivers designed to pluck both military signals and civilian telephone calls out of the air.
CNET News.com published an analysis in February of how the NSA does its job today. Also, an article by Bamford in last month's Atlantic Monthly recounts how the NSA has built listening posts to intercept and listen to satellite transmissions of phone calls, e-mails and other communications that travel from other countries into the United States.
The NSA has also bugged undersea fiber optic cables that link the communications in the U.S. with countries overseas. And with the permission of the phone companies, the agency has also attached monitoring equipment inside these telephone facilities so that information can be sent to NSA's supercomputers in Fort Meade, Md., to be analyzed, the article said.
Q: What about Internet communications, such as Internet telephony or e-mail messages?
Much of the Internet traffic that's transmitted in the United States traverses just a handful of switching centers owned by big communications companies, such as Verizon. The busiest are MAE East (Metropolitan Area Exchange), in Vienna, Va., and MAE West, in San Jose, Calif. The NSA has access to those switching centers, Bamford says.
In addition, the Federal Communications Commission has ordered broadband providers to build in back doors for electronic eavesdropping. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., heard arguments last week in a lawsuit challenging those rules.
CNET News.com's Marguerite Reardon contributed to this report.
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