The National Security Agency has been collecting domestic calling records from major telecommunications companies, sources told USA TODAY. Answers to some questions about the program, as described by those sources:
Q: Does the NSA’s domestic program mean that my calling records have been secretly collected?
A: In all likelihood, yes. The NSA collected the records of billions of domestic calls. Those include calls from home phones and wireless phones.
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Q: Does that mean people listened to my conversations?
A: Eavesdropping is not part of this program.
Q: What was the NSA doing?
A: The NSA collected “call-detail” records. That’s telephone industry lingo for the numbers being dialed. Phone customers’ names, addresses and other personal information are not being collected as part of this program. The agency, however, has the means to assemble that sort of information, if it so chooses.
Q: When did this start?
A: After the Sept. 11 attacks.
Q: Can I find out if my call records were collected?
A: No. The NSA’s work is secret, and the agency won’t publicly discuss its operations.
Q: Why did they do this?
A: The agency won’t say officially. But sources say it was a way to identify, and monitor, people suspected of terrorist activities.
Q: But I’m not calling terrorists. Why do they need my calls?
A: By cross-checking a vast database of phone calling records, NSA experts can try to pick out patterns that help identify people involved in terrorism.
Q: How is this different from the other NSA programs?
A: NSA programs have historically focused on international communications. In December, The New York Times disclosed that President Bush had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international phone calls to and from the USA. The call-collecting program is focused on domestic calls, those that originate and terminate within U.S. borders.
Q: Is this legal?
A: That will be a matter of debate. In the past, law enforcement officials had to obtain a court warrant before getting calling records. Telecommunications law assesses hefty fines on phone companies that violate customer privacy by divulging such records without warrants. But in discussing the eavesdropping program last December, Bush said he has the authority to order the NSA to get information without court warrants.
Q: Who has access to my records?
A: Unclear. The NSA routinely provides its analysis and other cryptological work to the Pentagon and other government agencies.
Contributing: Leslie Cauley