Understanding The NSA’s Phone Records Snooping Fiasco…

By: Sal Palma

I’m going to take a stab at adding some clarity to this issue in the hope that I can calm my readers down a bit. An effect that I hope will spread because mainstream media does an enormously poor job of enlightenment.

Terrorist cells whether foreign or domestic are polymorphic, meaning they can take on a variety of shapes and forms. They don’t wear uniforms to distinguish themselves. A member of a cell can be a coworker, neighbor or someone you’ve befriended.

From an organizational point of view cells are  flat matrixes interconnected more by ideology than by a formal chain of command. Therefore, there is no “real” command and control functions. In fact, what we associate with command and control is better characterized as an ideological hierarchy acting as the unifying fabric that forms intercellular interaction. If I were to represent these organizations with a traditional organizational chart, you’d find dotted lines from everyone to everyone, as opposed to solid lines connecting the participants and stakeholders. Attacking, the ideological command and control does little to collapse the matrix.

So, in my view, I believe the most effective way to address this menace is to work from the outside in. Traditionally, military and intelligence operations have targeted the nucleus of the organization to break down that organization; however, terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda and Associates, function very much like a retro-virus. Attacking the nucleus doesn’t really do a great deal; instead it expands the problem.

So, solving the problem requires that we understand the composition of the cell as well as how the cell is matrixed within the Jihadist fabric. Let’s talk about how that might happen.

In prosecuting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, our intelligence community and branches of the military collect physical intelligence. This is generally described as site exploitation. The NSA (National Security Agency) also collects intelligence in the form of COMINT (Communications Intelligence) and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence). The NSA is the central collections point for that intelligence. This is what the schema looks like.

Now let’s try to put it all together with an example. Special Forces conduct a raid on a camp. After suppressing its occupants, they conduct site exploitation; collecting cell phones, computers, documents, photographs, DNA and other biometric data, etc. In offsite analysis, they determine that a cell phone placed 20 calls to a variety of phone numbers. The question to be answered is who’s at the other end of that call. The NSA, takes the dialed number and runs it against a large data base of originating (a number placing a call) and terminating number (the number called by the originating number). From that, they are able to see what telephone numbers called the phone number of interest and what numbers the phone number of interest has called. With that analysis, the NSA is able to map the matrix that I referred to in my opening paragraphs. They can do this without ever listening to a single phone call. The importance of that mapping is critical. By mapping the matrix, they can develop a strategy to setup monitoring and surveillance. Which leads to identifying cells and their constituents.

It is essential the NSA have access to call records from wireless carriers, satellite communications companies, traditional land based telecommunication companies as well as cable companies. This requirement extends to similar companies around the world.

Could this be used to spy on political opponents? Absolutely! Congresses’ job should be to enact legislation imposing a heavy cost for abuses. Is it likely that the NSA would succumb to political pressure? Highly unlikely, but you never know when someone is willing to do someone a favor for personal gain. It gets down to the individual.

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2 Responses to Understanding The NSA’s Phone Records Snooping Fiasco…

  1. cd says:

    “It is essential the NSA have access to call records from wireless carriers, satellite communications companies, traditional land based telecommunication companies as well as cable companies. This requirement extends to similar companies around the world.”

    Actually…absolutely not…the NSA has shown very clearly it has no integrity or sense
    of legal responsibility. The NSA is now openly sharing phone call and email data without
    restriction to Israel and has even put that in writing. Cool eh….? No “terrorist” other
    then some FBI patsy will ever be caught by this. This abuse must stop…no excuses.


    • CD, I feel completely comfortable with the NSA’s ethics and integrity. In a counter-terrorism environment, typical law enforcement processes do not work. Law enforcement does not protect or deter, they investigate after the fact.
      However, the NSA’s job is to detect and deter terrorist operations before they happen. Doing that requires a great deal of latitude in how they collect, store and analyze data. Much of the stuff disclosed by Snowden, and discussed in the media, comes from sources that are clueless as to what the NASA does for a living. The alternative is to shackle the NSA and accept the risks of another 911, or an attack on critical infrastructure that could leave thousands dead.
      You can be sure that no one at the NSA wants to intrude on your privacy, unless there is reason to do so. So, I wouldn’t worry about guys in sunglasses sitting around reading you e-mails or listening your phone calls.
      Also keep in mind that Snowden’s claim of patriotism and support for civil liberties is worth less than sanitary tissue. Note that he didn’t take his concerns to the Congress, he took them to China who is possibly the most repressive government on the planet.

      Thanks for visiting the site and for your comments.


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