It's one of the most effective tools for tracking terrorists and organized crime. It's called links and nodes analysis, and we've recently learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) has operated a program to support that effort, through phone company data. Predictably, the civil liberties crowd is positively atwitter.
Here's how the program works, according to media accounts. After 9-11, the NSA entered into a partnership with many of the nation's largest phone companies, including Verizon and Bell South. The companies provided information on calling patterns from millions of phone accounts; which numbers were called, how long the calls lasted, and the number of times a specific number was called from a certain phone. The effort did not include the actual monitoring of conversations by the NSA.
Obviously, this type of social network analysis, as it's sometimes referred to, can provide potential tip-offs about terrorist locations and activities. Imagine if such a program had been in place before 9-11, and indicated a flurry of activity between the hijackers and their bosses overseas. Such efforts might have allowed intelligence agencies and law enforcement to identify potential cells, possibly pre-empting the 9-11 attacks. As with the NSA program that actually monitors suspicious phone calls between the U.S. and overseas locations, there is no indication (yet) that the phone record/data mining operation violated the law.
Undeterred, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (who must believe that there's a secret wiretap on every phone) is already promising hearings on the matter. Another Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, openly wondered how "collecting phone numbers" fits in with "finding the enemies." Give me a break.
The data mining operation fits in quite well, Senator. To win the war on terror, we need to track down the bad guys. They talk on telephones, and sometimes place multiple calls to the same number. Using that data, we can identify links and nodes in the terrorist world, allowing us to better direct our surveillance efforts, and eventually, neutralize that cell. If a number in, say, Pakistan is getting a lot of traffic from the U.S., why not monitor that number? The calls may be completely innocent, but they might provide a harbinger of planned terrorist attacks. This program is only a "threat" to Americans with Osama on their speed dial, or Zawahiri in their "friends and family" calling circle.
If the Senate is really concerned about the implications of data mining, they could do us all a big favor and start digging into Able Danger. Now there's a scandal.