The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has told allies and lawmakers it is considering reining in a variety of National Security Agency practices overseas, including holding White House reviews of the world leaders the agency is monitoring, forging a new accord with Germany for a closer intelligence relationship and minimizing collection on some foreigners.
But for now, President Obama and his top advisers have concluded that there is no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of “metadata,” including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States.
The administration’s reviews are being conducted in secrecy in part because of the secret nature of the N.S.A.’s operations. Initially, the reviews focused on domestic “bulk collection” programs begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which eventually led to the N.S.A. program to collect the billing records of all calls, and, for a while, to collect a large volume of emails as well. (The email program ended, the N.S.A. says, in 2011.) In an interview last month, General Alexander said he was “open” to any alternative to having the government maintain that database of calls.
But General Alexander’s deputy, John C. Inglis, who has spent nearly three decades at the N.S.A. focused on the technology of intercepting and decoding foreign communications, told Congress last week that so far there was no satisfying alternative to a government library of calls and, seemingly by extension, text messages and many Internet searches.
“It needs to be the whole haystack,” Mr. Inglis said. If the United States was looking for the communications of a terrorism suspect, he said, “it needs to be such that when you make a query you come away confident that you have the whole answer.”
There is a simple yet deceptive logic to the idea that unless the surveillance net can be cast across the totality of electronic communications, then vital pieces of information are at risk of being missed. Why deceptive? Because as we already know that the communications that a terrorist organization wants to keep secure will not be transmitted electronically. They will be conveyed by couriers invisible to the NSA.
A recent report on the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s principle intelligence organization, made the ridiculous statement: “The DIA needs to know what’s happening everywhere at all times.”
The NSA has similarly grandiose pretensions as it endeavors to listen to the whole world, yet the communications revolution of the last few decades has not changed the fact that in all spheres many of the most important exchanges occur the same way they have for the last two hundred thousand years: by word of mouth.