A question for Michael Hayden

Did the NSA kill a call-tracking system that was more useful and less intrusive than the one it's using now?


Tim Grieve
May 18, 2006 5:57PM (UTC)

Michael Hayden will face all sorts of questions at his confirmation hearing today, and here's one that ought to be at the top of the list: Shortly after 9/11, did your National Security Agency kill a Clinton-era surveillance program that might have allowed it to analyze huge amounts of communications data without violating privacy laws?

The Baltimore Sun says the answer is yes. According to a report by the Sun's Siobhan Gorman, the NSA shelved the program, called "ThinThread," because of what one official called "turf protection and empire building."

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As Gorman explains, the NSA's ThinThread program involved the collection and automated analysis of phone and e-mail records in encrypted form. To alleviate privacy concerns, human analysts could request decryption of specific records only after the NSA's computers identified a pattern or a threat. The system also contained an automated auditing function that would have prevented analysts from misusing the data that was being collected.

Gorman's sources says ThinThread underwent "rigorous testing" in 1998 and got "high marks" for everything it was supposed to do. So what happened to it? After 9/11, Gorman says, Hayden's NSA shelved the program "because of bureaucratic infighting and a sudden White House expansion of the agency's surveillance powers." Translated: NSA officials didn't want to pursue the program because they thought it would "humiliate" another program, called Trailblazer, that Hayden himself had initiated.

The result? Gorman says the NSA is now working with a program that is less useful and more intrusive than ThinThread would have been. "Without ThinThread's data-sifting assets," Gorman says, "the warrantless surveillance program was left with a sub-par tool for sniffing out information, and that has diminished the quality of its analysis, according to intelligence officials."


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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