NSA listening to phone sex instead of terrorists? Update: What ABC left out of its report

posted at 8:35 am on October 9, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

Americans inclined to have phone sex on international calls may have an unintended menage a trois instead.  ABC spoke to two former NSA operatives on the record about their work in the Terrorist Surveillance Program, and let’s just say that they weren’t completely focused on the task at hand.  Instead of the narrow surveillance promised by the Bush administration, the NSA in practice likes to keep themselves amused:

Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.

“These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,” said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA’s Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as “personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.”

She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and “collected on” as they called their offices or homes in the United States.

Another Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, worked at NSA from 2003 to late 2007, and told ABC essentially the same thing.  They saved conversations that amused them, often getting other operators to listen to phone sex, pillow talk, and other salacious tidbits. They also eavesdropped on journalists and aid workers, even after the NSA knew the numbers had nothing to do with terrorism.

They also intercepted critical information that saved lives in Iraq and elsewhere.  Faulk talked about discovering IEDs that got dismantled because of NSA intercepts, actions that saved the lives of American troops targeted by terrorists.  However, both Faulk and Kinne expressed frustration that the refusal of the NSA to winnow out numbers that clearly would produce no actionable intelligence made it harder for them to find the needles in the haystacks.  “By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it’s almost like they’re making the haystack bigger and it’s harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody,” Kinne told ABC.  “You’re actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.”

Americans have trusted the NSA to act professionally in its pursuit of terrorists, and to use its limited resources wisely.  We have heard for the last seven years about the shortage of qualified Arab linguists in the American intelligence community.  If these two are telling the truth, it’s not only a breach of that necessary trust in defending Americans from the asymmetrical threat of terrorists, it’s a criminal misuse of that limited resource.

We need a strong and focused effort from the NSA to discover terrorist plots before they have a chance to reach fruition in their goals of killing Americans.  If these accounts can be independently corroborated, then current management doesn’t appear up to the task.

Update: One commenter says, “Ed, you make a good point, but wouldn’t you possibly be tempted to listen in on a few phone sex calls after listening to thousands of hours of boring garbage?”  In my former career in commercial security, other companies in our field made extensive use of microphones in both residential and commercial applications, which can help cut down false alarms.  They can also provide endless hours of amusement for alarm company operators, especially the residential installations (if you get my drift), who don’t mind telling these stories to pass the time at their new jobs.  Believe me, I understand the impulse, although thankfully I’ve never been in that position myself.

That was why I understood the point of the NSA’s critics on the TSP.  A program like this requires strict supervision to keep abuses from happening.  If what ABC reports is correct, it doesn’t look like we’re getting it.

Update II:  Hmm.  It looks like ABC didn’t do enough research on one of its sources.  Adrienne Kinne is also on the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a fact ABC doesn’t mention in its piece.  Faulk now works for the Metro Spirit as a reporter and doesn’t appear to have joined any organized political opposition to the war, but has spoken out against it.

Does that make them not credible?  Not necessarily, especially with Faulk.  They may have come to oppose the war based on these very experiences.  However, ABC certainly should have told its readers and viewers about Kinne’s association with IVAW.

Update III: Just to remind readers, the Bush administration claimed the TSP would only surveil without search warrants calls from phone numbers that had been previously implicated in terrorist activities.  They claimed they would get warrants, as provided by FISA, for all other calls with at least one destination point within the US.  If they’re recording calls outside of those parameters, they’re explicitly violating the law and breaking that promise.

Update IV: Conn Carroll reminds me that satellite phones are not covered under the FISA law and the NSA can listen to any and all conversations on them without warrants.  ABC didn’t bother to mention that either.  Still, is this really what the NSA should be doing?  If the satellite phone number belongs to an Army officer instead of a terrorist, why are we wasting resources on surveilling it?


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