This story from the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal speaks for itself:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Five years ago, Congress killed an experimental Pentagon antiterrorism program meant to vacuum up electronic data about people in the U.S. to search for suspicious patterns. Opponents called it too broad an intrusion on Americans’ privacy, even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But the data-sifting effort didn’t disappear. The National Security Agency, once confined to foreign surveillance, has been building essentially the same system.
The central role the NSA has come to occupy in domestic intelligence gathering has never been publicly disclosed. But an inquiry reveals that its efforts have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people’s communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Congress now is hotly debating domestic spying powers under the main law governing U.S. surveillance aimed at foreign threats. An expansion of those powers expired last month and awaits renewal, which could be voted on in the House of Representatives this week. The biggest point of contention over the law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is whether telecommunications and other companies should be made immune from liability for assisting government surveillance.
Largely missing from the public discussion is the role of the highly secretive NSA in analyzing that data, collected through little-known arrangements that can blur the lines between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering. Supporters say the NSA is serving as a key bulwark against foreign terrorists and that it would be reckless to constrain the agency’s mission. The NSA says it is scrupulously following all applicable laws and that it keeps Congress fully informed of its activities.
According to current and former intelligence officials, the spy agency now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records. The NSA receives this so-called “transactional” data from other agencies or private companies, and its sophisticated software programs analyze the various transactions for suspicious patterns. Then they spit out leads to be explored by counterterrorism programs across the U.S. government, such as the NSA’s own Terrorist Surveillance Program, formed to intercept phone calls and emails between the U.S. and overseas without a judge’s approval when a link to al Qaeda is suspected.
The NSA’s enterprise involves a cluster of powerful intelligence-gathering programs, all of which sparked civil-liberties complaints when they came to light. They include a Federal Bureau of Investigation program to track telecommunications data once known as Carnivore, now called the Digital Collection System, and a U.S. arrangement with the world’s main international banking clearinghouse to track money movements.
The effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called “black programs” whose existence is undisclosed, the current and former officials say. Many of the programs in various agencies began years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach. Among them, current and former intelligence officials say, is a longstanding Treasury Department program to collect individual financial data including wire transfers and credit-card transactions.
It isn’t clear how many of the different kinds of data are combined and analyzed together in one database by the NSA. An intelligence official said the agency’s work links to about a dozen antiterror programs in all.
A number of NSA employees have expressed concerns that the agency may be overstepping its authority by veering into domestic surveillance. And the constitutional question of whether the government can examine such a large array of information without violating an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy “has never really been resolved,” said Suzanne Spaulding, a national-security lawyer who has worked for both parties on Capitol Hill…
Read the whole thing.