National Security Agency Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Americans

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. You've probably used the phone today, are you worried yet? The National Security agency's secret collection of phone records from Verizon is on most American's minds today. The Obama administration is defending the practice as a necessary tool to keep the nation's safe from terrorist attacks. Britain's guardian newspaper broke the story about the cedar court order authorizing the seizure of Verizon records, and the disclosure has opened up a whole bag of questions about how far the government is reaching into our privacy in the name of security. James Bamford has written extensively about this. His latest book is The Shadow Factory, the Ultra Secret NSA from 911 to the Eavesdropping on America.

James Bamford: It's always sort of like the tip of an iceberg where you see a tiny bit of NSA above this ocean of secrecy, and then what's going on below it is anybody's guess, to some degree. The problem is today's digital world and the NSA is the largest intelligence agency on earth. They're building this data center in Utah which will be completed in September for storing Data. Millions of square feet. Two billion dollars to store telephone calls, e-mail, and what the public knows about it is very little.

Werman: So, on this latest news, what kind of information are they collecting?

Bamford: What the surveillance court order indicates they are collecting is what's known as Meta data. It's information about a phone call, but not actually the conversation. So it's the who's calling whom, where the calling from, where's the person located at the time the calls are being made, how long is the call, have they call this person before, how often they call this personââ?¬ ¦ Everything you can find out about a telephone call, except for the actual conversation.

Werman: Some people suspect that because as order was issued on April 25, that its associated with the Boston Marathon Bombings. You think it is?

Bamford: No, I think it's been going on for long time. It sounds like it's been going on ever since the Bush Administration. The difference in is in the Bush Administration, it was illegal. Since then, they've created this Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and revamped the Patriot Act to some degree, so what was illegal a few years ago is probably legal in some secret back corner of the Justice Department and the NSA.

Werman: So, give us a senseââ?¬ ¦ You've got all this information, millions of phone recordsââ?¬ ¦ What are you looking for, and how you look for it?

Bamford: If you're the intelligence agencies, what you'll be seeing is right now isââ?¬ ¦ remember the Boston Bombing. It would've been nice if we had two brothers phone communications going back three or four years, or whatever. We can look back and say three years ago, they made a number of phone calls to Chechnya, or somebody who is on the terrorist list, or whatever. So they put two and two together and find out that these guys are linked to a particular person. My argument is that they've had very bad luck in the past, and the main reason is not because they collect too little, but because they collect too much. Every time there's a terrorist incident, they want to build the haystack bigger, which makes it much more difficult to find that needle.

Werman: As you say, they are collecting the meta data, but is their stuff in that meta data that goes beyond just call duration, phone numbers and were the number originated from?

Bamford: Wow, you can find out the actual conversation from the meta data, you can just find out who's connected to who, so that's pretty much the extent of it. The problem is, we do know about the warrantless eavesdropping in the Bush Administration until there were weeks. We didn't know about this until there were leaks, we do know about the drought attacks on Americans until there were leaks, so we have on the one hand, an administration that is tougher than any other administration on leaks, in on the other hand, it's becoming the most secure administration.

Werman: So, as you said the article you wrote last year for Wired describes the construction of the Utah data center for the NSA, which is going to open this September, and will be a monster repository of information on all of us. Based on today's news, where is headed?

Bamford: Will the problem is, it's all secret. And the people who are actually protesting against it don't have the bases to protest, because the administration just says, "where's the proof? How do you know we're doing this? We're not doing this, prove it to us." That's what makes leaks like this very important, and that's why the administration has been cracking down on leaks. It's this catch 22. The people like me who write on these issues need whistleblowers, but the more the administration cracks down on whistleblowers, the less there are available to share information.

Werman: Journalists James Bamford, his new book is The Shadow Factory. Thank you.

Bamford: My pleasure.