When the NSA spying scandal first broke, I wrote that I suspected they were intercepting all calls and e-mails and running them through computers for analysis. My suspicions are now largely confirmed. Surveillance Net Yields Few Suspects
The program has touched many more Americans than that. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.
Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, “wash out” most of the leads within days or weeks.
The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush’s circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program’s lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged “reasonable” if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained.
[. . .] Even with 38,000 employees, the NSA is incapable of translating, transcribing and analyzing more than a fraction of the conversations it intercepts. For years, including in public testimony by Hayden, the agency has acknowledged use of automated equipment to analyze the contents and guide analysts to the most important ones.
According to one knowledgeable source, the warrantless program also uses those methods. That is significant to the public debate because this kind of filtering intrudes into content, and machines “listen” to more Americans than humans do.
In other words, they were not just tapping into calls between Americans and members of al Queda, they were tapping into everything to see if anyone was calling al Queda. Or maybe to learn other things? No oversight – no warrants, no judges, no Congress – means there is just no way to know or trust what they are doing. That’s what warrants are for. That’s what our Constitution is for. These things came about because governmental powers are always abused unless checked. Bush has removed all checks on his power.