NSA Report Says Internet 'Metadata' Logs Were Focus of Visit to Ashcroft

By Savage, Charlie; Risen, James | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, June 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

NSA Report Says Internet 'Metadata' Logs Were Focus of Visit to Ashcroft


Savage, Charlie, Risen, James, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


WASHINGTON -- The March 2004 confrontation in the hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft that was a dramatic high point in the internal debate within the Bush administration over warrantless surveillance was apparently set off by a secret National Security Agency program. And that program was vacuuming up "metadata" logs of Internet communications, according to a draft of a 2009 NSA inspector general report obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian.

The report, the latest document given to the paper by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, might clear up a long-running mystery over which program White House officials wanted Ashcroft and other Justice Department officials to sign off on when they went to his Washington hospital room. Because of their refusal, according to the report, the Bush administration shut down the metadata collection for several months, then re-established it under a secret order from a national-security court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The program continued to operate for the first two years of the Obama administration but has since ended, Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the office of the director of national intelligence, said Thursday.

"The Internet metadata collection program authorized by the FISA court was discontinued in 2011 for operational and resource reasons and has not been restarted," Turner said. "The program was discontinued by the executive branch as a result of an interagency review."

A separate NSA program that has been collecting domestic "telephony metadata" - logs of all telephone calls dialed by Americans - has continued. That program was among the first of Snowden's revelations. It is not clear whether Internet metadata collection has continued under a different program.

The NSA uses the metadata to analyze links between people in an attempt to identify networks of suspected terrorists, a process the report calls "contact chaining." The inspector general report says they typically "analyzed networks with two degrees of separation (two hops)" from the known suspect to create investigative leads submitted to the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency in reports they called tippers.

The content of the inspector general report - a history of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance programs, which eventually came under court oversight - was first reported by The Washington Post.

Bush's original surveillance program, established Oct. 4, 2001, had four components. It sucked up the contents of telephone calls and emails, as well as their "metadata" logs. This was done without court orders and outside statutory regulations and was based on closely held legal memorandums; even the NSA's general counsel was not allowed to see them at first, according to the report, which invoked the president's inherent powers as commander-in-chief.

Over time, however, there was turnover at the Justice Department, including the arrival of a new head of its Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, and a new deputy attorney general, James Comey, who last week was nominated by President Barack Obama to be director of the FBI. In December 2003, Goldsmith began to object to the legality of some aspects of the programs, and he persuaded Comey - who took over temporarily as attorney general when Ashcroft became ill the following March - not to sign a document reauthorizing it. The report says that the Justice Department's concerns were focused on the Internet metadata program, which was then based on a theory that the NSA did not "acquire," for legal purposes, the bulk communications when it collected them but instead only when human analysts selected certain data to examine because they met certain criteria. …

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