In late 2001, a National Security Agency analyst was asked to do something unusual. Instead of locating a target's cell phone to eavesdrop on his conversation, the analyst was asked for the phone's location in real-time. It was apparently the beginning of the NSA's role in the CIA's drone operations that, a new report compiled by Pakistan suggests, had killed nearly 200 civilians by 2009.
The details of that first NSA-supported strike appear in a new story from The Washington Post. A Navy SEAL, standing in a trailer that was once home to the CIA's child care program, asked the analyst where the NSA's target was located.
“We just want you to find the phone!” the SEAL urged. No one cared about the conversation it might be transmitting. …
The NSA collector in Georgia took what was then considered a gigantic leap — from using the nation’s most sophisticated spy technology to record the words of presidents, kings and dictators to using it to kill a single man in a terrorist group.
This, The Post suggests, spurred the NSA's rapid expansion in the last decade, building and expanding its facilities around the world. Meanwhile, the technology used by the agency to track targets also expanded. The Post:
By September 2004, a new NSA technique enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off. JSOC troops called this “The Find,” and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit.
At the same time, the NSA developed a new computer linkup called the Real Time Regional Gateway into which the military and intelligence officers could feed every bit of data or seized documents and get back a phone number or list of potential targets. It also allowed commanders to see, on a screen, every type of surveillance available in a given territory.
This appears to be a different tool than Boundless Informant, the graphical interface of the NSA's PRISM data collection revealed in the leaks from Edward Snowden. But that 2004 innovation may explain Snowden's insistence that visitors stash their cell phones in his fridge when visiting.