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NSA 'may not realize' it collected info on innocent Americans, top US spy says
David Edwards and Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday September 25, 2007

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Powerful supercomputers are vacuuming up so much information that logs of calls to or from innocent Americans could exist in government databases indefinitely, the nation's top intelligence official said Tuesday.

"You may not even realize it's in the database because you do lots of collection," Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said, referring to the "inadvertent collection" of Americans' communications through a vast surveillance program instituted after 9/11.

An untold number of communication logs on US citizens could exist within a National Security Agency database of information gained through warrantless wiretaps of foreigners abroad, McConnell said, because NSA spies do not examine the full contents on all the information it collects until it has a reason to do so.

"If it's foreign intelligence, it's treated the way we discussed," and the government works to secure a warrant against anyone within the US it has reason to believe deserves further surveillance, McConnell said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. "If it's now recognized as incidental, it would be expunged from the database."

The full scope of Americans who have been inadvertently and unknowingly snared in the warrantless wiretapping program remains murky and elusive. On Tuesday, Sen. Russ Feingold pressed McConnell on whether recent updates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorized "bulk collection" on calls from abroad into America.

"It would be authorized, if it were physically possible to do so," McConnell said. "But the purpose of the authorization is for foreign intelligence."

Feingold pressed, "So there is no language actually prohibiting this?"

As long as the communication is "foreign, in a foreign country, for intelligence purposes," there's not, McConnell said.

McConnell told the El Paso Times last month that "100 or less" US persons were targets of foreign intelligence gathering. But that number only represents those for whom the government received a warrant to spy on, McConnell clarified in later congressional testimony.

The intelligence director then insisted that a "small" number of Americans had been spied on -- purposefully or not -- although he noted that designation should be judged in context of the "billions of transactions" monitored by the NSA.

President Bush initiated a warrantless wiretapping scheme he later referred to as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" soon after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Details on the early days of the program and its legal justifications remain out of view as the White House has steadfastly refused to hand over documents on the program requested by congressional judiciary and intelligence committees.

Just before a month-long summer recess -- and in a week when Republicans raised terror fears with a "bogus" bomb plot aimed at the Capitol -- the Democratic Congress approved sweeping new wiretapping powers that critics say sweepingly authorized the extra-legal powers President Bush had claimed for himself.

The Protect America Act, as spying-expansion was called, set a six-month limit on its expansions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. McConnell has been scuffing the corridors of Capitol Hill since early last week pushing Congress to not only make permanent the FISA expansions, but to give the government more authority and immunize telecommunications companies that have helped the government collect data on its citizens.

McConnell's testimony has been carefully crafted to give lawmakers the impression that analysts are accessing little information beyond their specific surveillance of known terror targets, but a careful parsing of his statements reveals a program that could be collecting far more information that the administration has acknowledged.

"They obtain an enormous amount [of information] ... that they can search by computer," Lisa Graves, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies, told RAW STORY.

McConnell stresses the "minimization" efforts that are in place requiring that information unrelated to terror investigations be expunged from national security databases. But his clarification that NSA analysts must first examine the collected data leaves open the question of how much information on Americans continues to be subject to data-mining efforts of information electronically swept into government databases, Graves said.

Analysts, Graves said, are trying to examine "the ocean of communication, to look in it for grains of said, when the vast, vast, vast majority of communications are innocent." The following video is from C-SPAN 3, broadcast on September 25.

In the following video, Senator Feingold is critical of 'broad and ambiguous' spying law