In Defense of the NSA's Phone Call Records Program

Updated

Richard Falkenrath has an op/ed in today’s Washington Post in which he explains how the NSA’s phone call records program is not only necessary for national security but for civil liberties as well.

On Thursday, USA Today reported that three U.S. telecommunications companies have been voluntarily providing the National Security Agency with anonymized domestic telephone records — that is, records stripped of individually identifiable data, such as names and place of residence. If true, the architect of this program deserves our thanks and probably a medal. That architect was presumably Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and President Bush’s nominee to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The potential value of such anonymized domestic telephone records is best understood through a hypothetical example. Suppose a telephone associated with Mohamed Atta had called a domestic telephone number A. And then suppose that A had called domestic telephone number B. And then suppose that B had called C. And then suppose that domestic telephone number C had called a telephone number associated with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The most effective way to recognize such patterns is the computerized analysis of billions of phone records. The large-scale analysis of anonymized data can pinpoint individuals — at home or abroad — who warrant more intrusive investigative or intelligence techniques, subject to all safeguards normally associated with those techniques.

Read the whole piece.

Hat tip: Andy McCarthy at The Corner

Update: Mark Steyn also has an article today that is spot on accurate about the media:

So there are now two basic templates in terrorism media coverage:

Template A (note to editors: to be used after every terrorist atrocity): “Angry family members, experts and opposition politicians demand to know why complacent government didn’t connect the dots.”

Template B (note to editors: to be used in the run-up to the next terrorist atrocity): “Shocking new report leaked to New York Times for Pulitzer Prize Leak Of The Year Award nomination reveals that paranoid government officials are trying to connect the dots! See pages 3,4,6,7,8, 13-37.”

He also explains that in order to connect the dots, we have to be able to see the dots:

I’m a strong believer in privacy rights. I don’t see why Americans are obligated to give the government their bank account details and the holdings therein. Other revenue agencies in other free societies don’t require that level of disclosure. But, given that the people of the United States are apparently entirely cool with that, it’s hard to see why lists of phone numbers (i.e., your monthly statement) with no identifying information attached to them is of such a vastly different order of magnitude. By definition, “connecting the dots” involves getting to see the dots in the first place.

Update II: Glenn Reynolds reports that President Bush’s approval numbers have jumped six points since the story about the NSA’s program was published and the criticism ensued.

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It's deja vu all over again

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