A published news report says the National Security Agency has been gathering domestic telephone records to look for terrorists. The report, which attributes the information to unnamed sources, says that the records obtained from telephone companies are used by the NSA to look for patterns of possible terrorist behavior. Without confirming or denying the existence of the program, President Bush says U.S. intelligence activities have been both lawful and protective of privacy.
The report in the newspaper USA Today reignited the debate over the actions of the National Security Agency, which is America's electronic eavesdropping agency. It also cast a cloud over the nomination of former NSA director Michael Hayden to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
According to the report, NSA has gathered thousands, perhaps millions, of phone records to search for patterns of terrorist behavior. It adds that the telephone companies do not provide personal data, such as names and addresses.
Nevertheless, James Bamford, who has written two books about the NSA, says the program is a threat to civil liberties.
"What the NSA has been doing is gathering a tremendous amount of data on American citizens, including where they call, who they call, how long they call, what time of the day they call," he said. "And they're putting all this together with the capability for eavesdropping on American phone calls. It's a very dangerous situation."
But Todd Gaziano, head of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, says the program is legal, especially as NSA does not obtain personal data.
"We can always dream up a constitutional angle, but there's no serious constitutional problem with obtaining telephone numbers that are not personally identifiable, especially when they're being used in this way, an aggregate way, to come up with sort of normal caller profiles," he explained.
The technique the NSA is reportedly using is known as "data mining" and has long been utilized by commercial businesses. Companies gather data on consumers' buying habits to track product popularity. For example, using a discount card at a store tracks purchasing patterns, which helps companies create and market products.
Todd Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation says the government is simply doing what businesses have been doing for years.
"This is nothing new. It would be shocking indeed if NSA and our government were not trying to use these same techniques to catch terrorists living amongst us that the commercial enterprises use all the time to provide more convenient service to us," he added.
But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the government needs some legal authority to get such information.
"The key difference between the government and the private sector is that when the government collects information from third parties, whether it's a bank or a hospital or a telephone company, it's supposed to have some legal authority [to do so] - a warrant, a subpoena, some other independent determination that it is appropriate and that there is a legal basis to get the information," he explained.
Michael Berry, interim head of the computer science department at the University of Tennessee and an expert on data mining, says the volume of information available in the digital age is enormous, and care must be taken how it is used.
"Now this is more of a digital age, and so that everything we do and interact with is societal and ultimately can be captured in some digital form," he said. "The question is, what do you do with it? Is it something that should be exploited for creating new technologies and better products? Or is it a way of monitoring people?"
Todd Gaziano says that the story about the gathering of phone records by the NSA might have been leaked in an effort to head off the nomination of General Michael Hayden to head the CIA. General Hayden was director of the NSA when the data collection program began after September 11, 2001.