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The Science of What Is and Isn't Happening with the NSA's Phone Surveillance


Talking the talk

With that out of the way, let's start by getting some terminology right. To understand how the intelligence business really works, let's make an extended metaphor. Imagine that you know someone has lost a bearer bond, redeemable by whoever has it, worth a billion dollars -- hell, make it ten billion, no, a hundred billion, so as not to get into Dr. Evil's embarrassment. What's more, you know it's been shredded, and scattered in a big open lot as part of paper mulch.

This is more or less the situation you start with in intelligence. You know things are happening, and that knowing them would be worth a lot to you -- after all, the 9/11 attack cost the U.S. economy three thousand people and over a trillion dollars.

For $100 billion, you know it's worth some effort, so you put together a big team of people to try to piece it together, or at least piece enough of it together to get it reissued. So you send a whole bunch of people out with shop vacs to vacuum the entire field. The stuff from the field comes back in bags, but as well as the bits of the bond, you've hoovered up not just the mulch, but sticks, stones, twigs, seeds, leaves, ants, beetles, and the occasional sleepy field mouse.

You take these sweepings back to a warehouse, which you have populated with expert janitors, champion jigsaw puzzlers with jewelers' loupes already screwed into one eye, and a few CPAs and lawyers to determine if you really have found the bond you're looking for. (There's a "Bond, James Bond" joke to be made here, but I think I'll leave it as an exercise for the interested reader.)

This is really more or less what doing intelligence is like. You collect all the sweepings because, well, if you knew where to find the good stuff you would just get that, but you don't, so you can't. The people with shop vacs are, technically, doing what's called acquisition; bagging it and returning it to the warehouse is called collection.

Here, by the way, is where we can point out the first bit of mis-or dis-information: James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, has basically claimed that by taking all of the Verizon metadata they're doing acquisition but not collection, so it's not true that they're "collecting" everyone's phone records.

To which I say "yeah, right." They're putting it in the warehouse; just because they claim they aren't actually looking at it doesn't impress me.

Meanwhile, back in the warehouse, the junior-varsity puzzlers have been digging through the bags of stuff, which they have dumped out on big tables; there are occasional shrieks of terror when the field mouse, awakened by being vacuumed up and put in a bag, makes a break for it and scampers off into the darkened recesses of the warehouse. The JV puzzlers now start looking through the material on their tables, looking for anything that looks like it might be a part of a bond, picking up shredded canceled checks and those annoying looks-like-a-check direct mail advertisements as well. This stuff they put to the side. They also pick up occasional small change, lost earrings, and so forth, and put them aside in another pile; it's not what you're looking for but it's nice to find.

In intelligence, this is the process called analysis.

The collected information is taken in with a very wide net. This net, when it deals with electronic communications, is run by NSA and called "signals intelligence," SIGINT; if you're instead asking people for information, that's "human intelligence," HUMINT, and it's the job of CIA. The business of NSA is primarily collection -- although they also crack codes, which could be called analysis, and they are the responsible agency for matters of computer security.

The primary business of the CIA is analysis -- although they also have other jobs, in particular the National Clandestine Service, which used to be called the Directorate of Operations. Those are the real James Bond, shoot-em-up, covert ops spies. You can, believe it or not, find the CIA's org chart online here.

While we took that little digression, our JV jigsaw puzzlers have taken their piles of scraps of paper to the champion puzzlers, who are now piecing together the shreds of paper until they have something that looks like a bond. Those they take to the CPAs and the lawyers, who take the pieced-together stuff to the Boss -- in the real world, political appointees like the National Security advisor, the secretaries of State and Defense, and eventually the POTUS.