Gonna Be A Long Year, I’m Afraid

This Slate article, Tinker, Tailor, Miner, Spy – Why the NSA’s snooping is unprecedented in scale and scope, suggests John Poindexter “gets it” more that the current administration – *sigh*

In January, Congress plans to hold hearings into the legality of the Bush administration’s eavesdropping program. Lawmakers will want to know why, if the NSA cannot do its job while remaining within the legal bounds established in the 1970s, the Bush administration did not address that problem in the context of the Patriot Act. Congress might also ask why in the rush to begin data-mining, the NSA has abandoned the privacy controls planned for the TIA. As Adm. Poindexter himself noted in his resignation letter from the program in 2003, “it would be no good to solve the security problem and give up the privacy and civil liberties that make our country great.”

Related: does it work — The NSA’s Overt Problem [pdf]

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., notes that most of the major breakthroughs against al Qaeda-linked plots in recent years have shown that the terrorists, wary of phone monitoring, are communicating through couriers on the ground and coordinating plots on the Web. When Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was arrested in July 2004, his laptop contained plans for simultaneous attacks on London and New York that were to have been transmitted electronically. Today, adds Hoffman, the most sophisticated terrorists have learned to evade the NSA altogether. “They keep their messages in a draft file on a Web site, then give someone the password and user name to get in. The NSA can’t track that, because it’s stationary.”

Bush administration officials are now casting the war on terrorism as a fight against al Qaeda’s plans to reestablish a “caliphate” across the Islamic world, referring to the Muslim empire of centuries past. Some experts scoff at such Islamist ambitions. But to the extent the dreams of a caliphate are being discussed by extremist Muslim groups, this is occurring mainly on Internet Web sites, experts say. “The Internet is the key issue,” Gilles Kepel, a prominent Arabist and a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, told the New Yorker in 2004. “It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet sharia and fatwa system.”

[…] It may be possible for the NSA to conduct its massive surveillance legally, but solving the civil liberties issue is only half the agency’s problem. Robert Holliday, a U.S. Customs expert who developed terrorist-identifying software that’s now widely used, says the bad guys still have the edge when it comes to communicating in anonymity and secrecy. “I’m not going to worry about Big Brother,” says Holliday. “There’s just too much data to track out there.” And America needs to find a better way to do it.