Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Big Ears 

According to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, over a fifth of Americans believe that their telephone conversations have been monitored by the government:
Twenty-one percent of the 1,000 adults who replied to the survey conducted Thursday through Sunday said it was very likely or somewhat likely their conversations had been wiretapped, while 52 percent said it was not at all likely.

Twenty-four percent said it was not too likely.

According to the poll, Americans appear to be split over the legality of the domestic eavesdropping program. About 49 percent of respondents said the president had definitely or probably broken the law by authorizing the wiretaps and 47 percent said he probably or definitely had not. (
Poll results)

Those numbers were similar to a question about whether the program is right or wrong -- 47 percent said it was right and 50 percent called it wrong.
Distressingly, the 21 percent may be right. Most people do not appreciate the full extent of the NSA's eavesdropping capabilities. The agency can monitor roughly two million commmunications per hour. Every international call and e-mail has been intercepted for the last few decades, and since Mr. Bush's decision to ignore FISA, many, if not most, domestic calls have been snagged in the data net as well. The vast majority of them are never transcribed, never read -- unless they meet certain criteria that cause them to be flagged by computerized filtering programs.

Since the NSA is not subject to legal, congressional, or public oversight, it is impossible to estimate how many transcripts are generated, read, and retained. We do, however, have a rough measure of the volume of communications that are recorded, transcribed, and then discarded as useless:
The NSA generates about 40 metric tons of waste paper every day. The sheer quantity caused the NSA headaches for years. The material was compacted, packed, and shipped off to an incinerator--after the NSA sent the employees home for 24 hours so its own people could carry out the dirty work of disposing of covert cellulose. The agency wanted to ensure that security would be tight in case a single sliver of paper got loose with someone’s name on it.

However, the NSA was unable to find a trash incineration company that was consistently willing to turn its facility over to the NSA for a day, or that was interested in burning the NSA!s top secret by-products. Classified documents began to stack up at Fort Meade. Eventually, the NSA launched project “White Elephant”: building its own incinerator. When the facility was finally completed, NSA officials discovered to their horror that charred, still-legible slivers of paper were floating into the sky and fluttering to the ground below. Security guards were sent running around the compound, snatching up the tiny flakes like children catching fireflies . . . .

[Author James] Bamford claimed that the NSA has created a small side business out of shredding the millions of documents it generates every year. The NSA converts the paper into pulp and recycles it into pizza boxes inside its headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. Last year alone, sales of the covert pizza containers generated $58,000 for the agency, according to Bamford.
PHOTOS (courtesy of Scoplaw, via Zemblan patriot G.V.G.): Georgetown University law students turn their backs on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as he delivers a speech defending the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program.

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