May 16, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Connecting Dots: NSA needs phone records

Gen. Michael Hayden is going to get an early Memorial Day BBQ-ing on Thursday. The CIA director-nominee will appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the senators are sure to go ballistic over the National Security Agency's telephone-calling-record database. Yet, despite the nonsense that the politically motivated mainstream media and the left have been spouting on the NSA program, this critical counterterrorism effort isn't intrusive, illegal - or unnecessary.

Let's start by dispelling some of the more prominent myths perpetuated about the program:

It's intrusive: Wrong. The billions of telephone-calling records voluntarily provided to the NSA by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth are anonymous. This means they're just phone numbers - the caller's names/addresses aren't identified in the calling record.

Moreover, these records include nothing on any of the substance of the phone calls - just the number, the date and duration. This doesn't mean that your phone calls are being monitored by the NSA - or anyone else. That requires a court order.

It's illegal: Wrong. It's perfectly legal for the government to receive this information. These are considered mere business records. In fact, the Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that the Fourth Amendment (i.e., the right against unreasonable search and seizure) doesn't include phone-calling records.

In Smith v. Maryland (1979), the court found that the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect calling records because when you voluntarily use the phone, you voluntarily share that info with every telephone company that handles the call along the way to its destination.

It's unnecessary: Wrong. The program is focused on terrorists, especially the al Qaeda threat. While we've made progress in neutralizing al Qaeda, the terrorist group remains dangerous and deadly - and has promised to strike here at home again.

In fact, the decentralization of al Qaeda has made it a more unpredictable (i.e., challenging) target for homeland security. And the bombings in London last July remind us of the increased threat arising from homegrown terrorists.

The most glaring absence in all the uproar is a good example of how this information might be used to prevent a terrorist act right here in the United States.

Suppose the FBI identifies - today - a terrorist suspect (e.g., Terrorist A) located right here in the United States from information received from a foreign intelligence service after a raid on an al Qaeda safe house abroad.

Beyond taking immediate steps to prevent a terrorist attack, one of the first questions that law enforcement is going to want to answer is whether Terrorist A is working alone, or as part of a cell or larger group operating here.

There are a couple of ways of determining this. One method is by looking at how - and with whom - Terrorist A communicates. This is often referred to as "communications-network analysis."

But, while you might be able to identify with whom Terrorist A is communicating by monitoring his phone calls once you've determined his terrorist ties, you still don't know with whom else he communicated with in the past.

That's why the NSA wanted the calling-record database. With it, law-enforcement agents can determine the phone numbers of Terrorist A's previous contacts. Equally importantly, they can find out with whom else Terrorist A's contacts have talked with.

Through analysis of Terrorist A's (and associates') calling patterns using NSA's database and supercomputers, officials can develop a schematic of the terrorist organization's structure, members - even chain of command.

In other words, they can connect the dots.

No telling what a difference such a counterterrorism program might have had in preventing 9/11, if such network analysis had been done on the communications patterns of the al Qaeda hijackers.

Sad to say, we live in a time when we should no longer be shocked at the lengths the mainstream media, or other irresponsible leakers of classified information, will go to advance their anti-Bush political agenda - even if it means harming our national security.

We need to remind ourselves that it isn't by chance that we haven't had a terrorist attack here in the United States in almost five years. It's because we've established a significant counterterrorism program both at home and abroad, including this NSA effort.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and author of the book "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post Online Edition