May 17, 2006

The dumbest rationalization yet for the NSA phone record collection

Sometimes you read something of such breathtaking stupidity you can't help but marvel at the lack of thought that went into it. Usually, you just sit back and call the author an idiot and give it no more thought than you would an ant you'd just stepped on.

Not so much with this. From Richard A. Falkenrath, a Brookings Institution fellow, via the SacBee comes this defense of the NSA's phone call tracking...

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 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.

Granted, it's a given he'd throw 9/11 into the mix. It's the natural defense for what would ordinarily be indefensible. However, the logic here is flawed as it assumes one thing... you know which telephone is associated with Mohamed Atta. If you knew that, then all you'd have to do (if you were the NSA) is go to a court and ask for warrants to obtain records on calls to and from that number and the progression from those numbers. In that way you could quickly get to good suspects with little chance of hitting dead ends. No 'large-scale analysis of billions of records' required, just a solid application of logic and VOILA!, a solid database of possible terrorist cells.

Falkenrath praises Mike Hayden for thinking outside the box. For that, Falkenrath is a moron. Hayden skirted and possibly broke the law with the aid of companies clearly intimidated by the NSA. What's worse, he wasted resources on an effort that has yeilded NOTHING that couldn't have been obtained legally. He over thought the problem and like most in security apparatus of the US was too in love with technology, not common sense and innate logic.

Rich... seriously. You're an idiot for thinking this way, to say nothing of your attacks on 'bureaucrats' who 'excel at finding reasons not to do something'

They are most often guilty of sins of omission, not commission. A timid, ordinary executive might have concluded that it was too risky to ask U.S. telecommunications companies to provide anonymized call records voluntarily to an agency such as the NSA, dealing with foreign intelligence. If the USA Today story is correct, it appears that Mike Hayden is no timid, ordinary executive. Indeed, it appears that he is exactly the sort of man that we should have at the helm of the CIA while we are at war.

What Rich fails to realize is that the best reason not to do something is because it's illegal. That was the problem Qwest's CEO had with the program and why Qwest did not participate. The USA Today article had this one interesting tidbit that affirms my thoughts on this

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

If the NSA was so worried about the legality of the program, shouldn't that have given them pause? You'd think, if you were anyone other than Richard Falkenrath and Mike Hayden.

Posted by mcblogger at May 17, 2006 11:30 AM

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