What's Behind The Data-Mining Curtain?

Via Josh Marshall (short post, so that's the whole thing):

As you can see, we now have the first hint of what was at the center of the Ashcroft hospital room showdown. According to the New York Times, what the White House calls the 'terrorist surveillance [i.e., warrantless wiretap] program' originally included some sort of largescale data mining.

I don't doubt that this is true as far as it goes. But this must only scratch the surface because, frankly, at least as presented, this just doesn't account for the depth of the controversy or the fact that so many law-and-order DOJ types were willing to resign over what was happening. Something's missing.

Of course, 'data mining' can mean virtually anything. What kind of data and whose you're looking at makes all the difference in the world. Suggestively, the Times article includes this cryptic passage: "Some of the officials said the 2004 dispute involved other issues in addition to the data mining, but would not provide details. They would not say whether the differences were over how the databases were searched or how the resulting information was used."

To put this into perspective, remember that the White House has been willing to go to the public and make a positive argument for certain surveillance procedures (notably evasion of the FISA Court strictures) which appear to be illegal on their face. This must be much more serious and apparently something all but the most ravenous Bush authoritarians would never accept. It is supposedly no longer even happening and hasn't been for a few years. So disclosing it could not jeopardize a program. The only reason that suggests itself is that the political and legal consequences of disclosure are too grave to allow.

Late Update: The Post has a follow story on the data mining issue. It covers most of the same ground but hints a little more directly about possible interception of emails and phone calls. The article suggests that examination of "metadata" was the issue here. But, again, it doesn't fit. The intensity of the covering up doesn't match the alleged secret.

So what does match the intensity of the covering up?

First, a word about data mining. That Wiki article will give you all the info you need, I expect, but here's what I'd like to emphasize. You have a vast amount of data, too much for one person or even a dedicated group of people to pore over. Therefore, you use a computer to search out key phrases or data sets to help focus your search. The computer can cut through the chatter and find the key phrases, giving the investigators a greatly reduced amount of data in which to perform more focused searches, or even to simply start laying human eyes upon.

Say you're in the FBI, and you want to hunt terrorists. You know that the terrorists are using the Internet, for example. So you find a way to allow your data mining program to intercept email messages and scan them as they travel down the tubes. The ones with the key phrases get flagged, and the ones that don't are flushed.

This is my question: where do the key phrases come from?

I rather doubt that the terrorists are talking freely about wanton destruction in any way. There's got to be some kind of coded message, and it needs to be rather innocuous sounding small talk to escape detection. "I got oranges at the market today, but I couldn't lay my hands on any rhubarb." And so bin Laden knows that the cell leader talked to one crucial member of the cell but couldn't find another.

How do you data mine a conversation like that? How do you even know what they are talking about?

This is off the top of my head, but tell me why it wouldn't work. You do some initial surveillance. You do the monitoring of telephone calls to known al-Qaeda members outside the country. You come up with a pared-down list of people in the United States that may or may not be talking to the terrorists about terrorism.

Then you track down their email accounts. You feed the telephone conversations into a text analyzer.

And then you crack those emails and telephone conversations open. You use text analysis to identify common phrases and words, you put human eyes on this mass of data to see if humans think these conversations sound fishy, and then you boil it all down to key phrases to focus the larger task of data mining.

And then you do it all over again. You identify people who are using the same key phrases in their emails and telephone conversations. You boil them down, crack open their conversations, and work the process again. Hits begin to accumulate, maybe. Misses gets refined out of the process, maybe. But since the key phrases are likely innocuous sounding, you get hundreds of thousands of misses.

It's the chicken or the egg problem: which comes first, the data mining or the key phrases?

What if, to get a huge jump start on the process, the Bush Administration violated the privacy rights of thousands of Americans, again and again and again? What if career prosecutors were unwilling to accept any of the tainted results because they would never be admissible in a court of law if the original and continued process of validating key phrases became known? What if millions of dollars were thrown into this kind of a program, all to get the vast amount of evidence thrown out and the guilty set free?

Okay, don't listen to that - it's all about this:

Well, well. As we wrote over a year ago, after combining careful examination of how Republicans parse their statements with network engineering knowledge available through open sources:

Long story short: (1) Internet surveillance is Bush’s goal, not voice calls; (2) the Republican “wiretap” talking point is a diversion, to voice, away from from Internet surveillance; (3) Bush’s domestic surveillance system would pose no engineering challenges whatever to NSA. No rocket science—or tinfoil hats—required.

Can we please stop talking about “wiretaps” now? It’s not your voice communications Bush wants. It’s your mail.
Because email and all Internet communication is sent by packets all around the Internet, some of the packets could go outside the United States. That means the entire message could be forfeit. For all we know, they intentionally direct email out of the country so that they can then grab it.

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Gonzales Committed Perjury On Tuesday

From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON - Documents show that eight congressional leaders were briefed about the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program on the eve of its expiration in 2004, contradicting sworn Senate testimony this week by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The documents, obtained by The Associated Press, come as senators consider whether a perjury investigation should be opened into conflicting accounts about the program and a dramatic March 2004 confrontation leading up to its potentially illegal reauthorization.

..."The dissent related to other intelligence activities," Gonzales testified at Tuesday's hearing. "The dissent was not about the terrorist surveillance program."

"Not the TSP?" responded Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "Come on. If you say it's about other, that implies not. Now say it or not."

"It was not," Gonzales answered. "It was about other intelligence activities."

A four-page memo from the national intelligence director's office shows that the White House briefing with the eight lawmakers on March 10, 2004, was about the terror surveillance program, or TSP.

The memo, dated May 17, 2006, and addressed to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, details "the classification of the dates, locations, and names of members of Congress who attended briefings on the Terrorist Surveillance Program," wrote then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.


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Cheney Contemplating a Run?

From Think Progress:

This New York Sun editorial explores the idea of Richard Cheney running for president.

Mr. Cheney has virtues as a candidate in his own right. He has foreign policy experience by virtue of having served as defense secretary, and he has economic policy experience, having served as a leading tax-cutter while a member of the House of Representatives. His wife, Lynne, would be an asset to the ticket in her own right, a point made by Kathryn Jean Lopez in a post on the topic at National Review Online back in February. By our rights, Lynne Cheney would make one of the greatest First Ladies in history. Mr. Cheney, in any event, is more than four years younger than Mr. McCain, and, if elected, would be 67 years old at his inauguration, younger than Reagan was when he took office. His health, while a topic of frequent speculation, hasn't interfered with his service as vice president.

Lawrence Kudlow wrote a column a while back saying he hoped President Bush asked Vice President Cheney to run for president in 2008. It was a fine idea then and it still is — not because the current field is particularly weak, but because Mr. Cheney is so much more experienced and shrewd a figure, one who could help settle some of the arguments about the Bush years in favor of Mr. Bush. A White House aiming to get Mr. Cheney elected could also avoid some of the hazards that befall lame-ducks — drift, brain drain, irrelevance. Such a campaign might lift Mr. Cheney 's own standing in the polls.

The vice president's stature would put him instantly into the first rank of contenders on the Republican side. On Monday, speaking in Alabama, the vice president received such a warm greeting that he began his remarks by saying, "A reception like that is almost enough to make you want to run for office again." It is hard to imagine the vice president did not comprehend how tantalizing such a remark would be. He used the same opening line on March 24 when he spoke to the leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition. This is not an endorsement, and there are things we find attractive about many of the other candidates. But for those of us who are concerned with extending Mr. Bush's campaign for freedom around the world and cutting taxes at home, a Cheney campaign is attractive.

Oh please please please please please please PLEASE don't throw us into that briar patch, Brer Cheney.

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