Sunday, December 25, 2005

As one of the hundreds of thousands who has proudly worked for the National Security Agency either directly or as a subcontractor, I believe the New York Times missed the real story under its Dec. 16 headline “Bush lets U.S. spy on callers without courts.” Here is why.

The New York Times concedes the story starts with the CIA capture of top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. With Zubaydah’s capture came a treasure trove of eavesdropping intelligence sources — e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, and personal phone directories. These are prime intelligence sources that may lead to the infamous “dots” often used in the phrase “Why didn’t our intelligence agencies ‘connect the dots?’ ”

Some of Zubaydah’s telephone numbers and e-mail addresses are in the United States. How long do you think these domestic numbers would remain active after Zubaydah’s arrest is made public? Hours? One day? Two?

Most importantly, these Zubaydah contacts lead to more and more contacts and may eventually led to discovery of terrorist plans. In fact, this happened. The New York Times reported the NSA eavesdropping authorized by President Bush’s executive order and briefed to both congressional leaders and the judge in charge of the secret intelligence court required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) helped uncover al Qaeda plots to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge and attack British pubs and train stations.

The NSA has the mandate to collect all foreign intelligence, using for example a global eavesdropping system called Echelon. If a foreign intelligence source or Zubaydah contact calls or sends an e-mail to the United States, or if any domestic source contacts a foreign source the NSA is already monitoring, NSA monitors that communication via Echelon or other means.

Contacts on foreign soil are not in question regardless of where they call or what calls they receive. The NSA has them covered. Only follow-up rapid monitoring of Zubaydah-type contacts on U.S. soil that make contact outside the country is in question.

The FBI has the mandate to monitor communications within the United States. The FBI requires the approval of an attorney general followed by judiciary approval. This includes monitoring NSA identified Zubaydah-type contacts that are on U.S. soil.

The conundrum is that most domestic-type Zubaydah contacts are almost sure to go “dark” as soon as their existence is perceived to be threatened. If they go dark, potential threats to the United States just disappear. What to do?

As reported by the New York Times, Mr. Bush issued his executive order allowing the NSA to rapidly follow Zubaydah type contacts as they are discovered and to monitor only the international communications from Zubaydah type contacts on American soil. The FBI takes over monitoring their subsequent domestic-to-domestic communications.

The president has the ultimate responsibility for Americans’ security. His executive order, as reported by the New York Times, is a reasonable assistance to our intelligence agencies.

If we want the CIA, NSA and FBI to “find the dots,” they must be freed to work as a lighting-fast team.

Jack O’Neill worked in the White House under President Carter as a telecommunications policy analyst. He is the author of the just released book “ECHELON, Somebody’s Listening.”

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