The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Today's Must Read

Today's Must Read

It is the closest thing I've seen to a complete explanation of the surveillance program the Bush Administration has assembled.

Siobhan Gorman of The Wall Street Journal reports
this morning that the National Security Agency has assembled what some
intelligence officials admit is a driftnet for domestic and foreign

Here's the way the whole thing works, according to Gorman: into the
NSA's massive database goes data collected by the Justice Department,
Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Treasury. This
information includes data about email (recipient and sender address,
subject, time sent), internet searches (sites visited and searches
conducted), phone calls (incoming and outgoing numbers, length of call,
location), financial information (wire transfers, credit-card use,
information about bank accounts), and information from the DHS about
airline passengers.

Then the NSA's software analyzes this data for indications of
terrorist activity. When it hits upon a suspicious pattern, the NSA
"feeds its findings into the effort the administration calls the
Terrorist Surveillance Program and shares some of that information with
other U.S. security agencies.”

Here's a more in-depth explanation:

Two former officials familiar with the data-sifting efforts
said they work by starting with some sort of lead, like a phone number
or Internet address. In partnership with the FBI, the systems then can
track all domestic and foreign transactions of people associated with
that item -- and then the people who associated with them, and so on,
casting a gradually wider net. An intelligence official described more
of a rapid-response effect: If a person suspected of terrorist
connections is believed to be in a U.S. city -- for instance, Detroit,
a community with a high concentration of Muslim Americans -- the
government's spy systems may be directed to collect and analyze all
electronic communications into and out of the city.

The haul can include records of phone calls, email headers and
destinations, data on financial transactions and records of Internet
browsing. The system also would collect information about other people,
including those in the U.S., who communicated with people in Detroit.

The data sifting is supposedly legal because it's limited to
so-called "transactional" details. In other words, the NSA cannot read
the content of an email, but can use other data about the email (i.e.
subject line, sender/recipient, data and time). If a suspicious pattern
emerges, then the NSA, via the Terrorist Surveillance Program, may seek
to wiretap.

Gorman describes the NSA's effort (elements of which have been reported before)
as basically a resurrection of the Pentagon's Total Information
Awareness program, which of course was de-funded by Congress once the
details became public. This time around, of course, the details have
remained secret. Although the budget for the NSA's driftnet is
classified, Gorman cites one official as estimating it at $1 billion.
One wonders what the reaction will be this time around:

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Senate
Intelligence Committee who led the charge to kill TIA, says "the
administration is trying to bring as much of the philosophy of
operation Total Information Awareness as it can into the programs
they're using today." The issue has been overshadowed by the fight over
telecoms' immunity, he said. "There's not been as much discussion in
the Congress as there ought to be."

We'll have more on this in a bit.