NSA, Wherefore Art Thou Limits?

Talk to any intelligence collector, operative, case officer, analyst -- and posit to them the notion the National Security Agency is collecting more information than it should -- and, well, the answer you'll get is something akin to your telling your doctor that you're not feeling well.  The NSA's multi-multi-billion dollar collection systems trawl through every node, nodule, juncture, wire, wireless gap, and IP. Then, even more sophisticated computers sift through the catch to try and find bits and pieces of data that are ripe for analysis. (The real story, if there is one, is how much the NSA doesn't analyze and is forced to discard.)   One of the biggest secrets the NSA wanted to protect in the early part of this decade was the fact that most telecommunication hubs sit on United States territory, thereby making it easy to tap into virtually any non-wireless communication between any entity, anywhere. The NSA sought -- and so far as we know -- recieved -- permission from Congress to analyze the metadata streaming through these hubs and could then apply for FISA warrants to monitor U.S. based targets. We know from James Bamford that private contractors have built mega-machines to help NSA collect and sort data; we know, from cases like Al-Haramain that the NSA routinely passed domestic-to-domestic collection chum to the FBI; we intuit, from Risen and Lichtblau's previous reporting, that the communications of tens of thousands of American citizens were regularly monitored in this way. We also know that the FBI got fed up with unreliable referrals from the NSA; we believe we know that the NSA's program since the revelation of the existence has been curtailed.  We seem to be on the verge of knowing a lot more.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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