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NSA Lead Attorney Defends Phone Surveillance

Heavyweights in the security and intelligence world politely duked it out on stage yesterday. At the Aspen Institute’s annual security forum, the National Security Agency’s lead attorney defended a surveillance program. It one of those made public this summer by the now-famous former contractor Edward Snowden. On Thursday, longtime journalist and mediator Michael Isakoff got right to what has made it so controversial.

“The fact that millions and millions of records of Americans phone calls were being collected slash stored, I’ll let people use the word they want [laughter] by the NSA, under a provision of the Patriot act, Section 215. Raj, walk us through, exactly how this program works in practice, who has access to it, and what those records can be used for."

“Sure, well thanks Mike, and thanks to the Aspen Institute and to Clark for pulling this all together…”

That’s Raj De, general counsel for the NSA. He was careful to say the 215 program is allowed under the Patriot Act. It permits the FBI to ask for business records... which in this case covers phone call records from Verizon and possibly other providers. Those records are then shared with the NSA. Again, Raj De.

“This came about in part after the 9-11 attacks. We realized that one of the operatives who had been living in the US for some time, in San Diego, it turns out after the fact, we learned, had been receiving calls from a known Al Qaeda safe house in Sana’a, Yemen. So we know there’s a Yemeni number, for example, that is a bad number.  Has a reasonable suspicion that it’s tied to a terrorist organization.”

De says, the oodles of phone call data now collected under the 215 program make it easier for intelligence agents to quickly see who’s been in contact with that Yemeni number... and then find possible terrorists in the US. Before, it was much harder.

“If we wanted to in short order try to figure out where that number may be connected to other numbers in the US, if we went with the traditional law enforcement model, would be to need to be to go to multiple providers, to ask them to search what number that number had been in contact with. This would be a situation where they don’t have the records handy for a Yemeni phone number, they would have to do a search against their records, against that number.”

De argued it would be difficult to quickly compile and review all that time sensitive data. Plus, US phone providers aren’t required to keep their call records... unless the NSA surveillance program is in place. Now, Raj De tried to assure the audience his agency is only collecting basic stuff from phone calls.

“Things like numbers dialed, date and time of call, and duration of call. There’s no names associated with the numbers that are submitted to the FBI and to NSA. There’s no locational data that is provided, whether that’s GPS or cell site locational information.”

All those numbers are called meta data. Not what’s said during the call... which called content.

“Well, you know what, meta data can give a lot of content.

Anthony Romero was also on Thursday’s panel. He’s Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“How long I stay on a phone call. How often I call my mother, as she struggles with breast cancer. Who I don’t call at my office, cause we don’t want a log of my phone call… That meta data, when compiled in complete information, can give you a very full picture if what my day is like.”

The ACLU is suing over the NSA’s phone surveillance. And Romero says some good has come of the program so suddenly--and thoroughly--becoming public. Meanwhile... at another security forum event on Thursday, a Pentagon official described new steps at the National Security Agency... to beef up security for surveillance programs... to make sure they stay under wraps.