Amid revelations (confirmed) that the US National Security Agency has been collecting basic data on most of the phone calls made in the US, and new claims (so far strenuously denied) that it can directly pull users’ information from most of the biggest online firms, one inevitably wonders what else it might be monitoring.
The phone surveillance revealed by the Guardian yesterday (June 5) covers only metadata—phone numbers, phone serial numbers, call times and durations, and some location data. But a month ago a retired FBI analyst, Tim Clemente, suggested on television that US intelligence agencies routinely record all phone conversations too.
John Santore, a student at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University, points to two interviews that Clemente gave to CNN at the beginning of May, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings two weeks earlier. (Disclosure: Santore is a student at Medill of Josh Meyer, who writes for Quartz.) The first interviewer, Erin Burnett, asked Clemente if the government could have tapped into a conversation that one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had with his wife before he’d been identified as a suspect. Surely not? Burnett asked.
CLEMENTE: No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. [...]
BURNETT: So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.
CLEMENTE: No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.
The next day, CNN’s Carol Costello pressed Clemente:
COSTELLO: You’re not talking about voicemail, right? What are you talking about exactly?
CLEMENTE: I’m talking about all digital communications are — there’s a way to look at digital communications in the past. I can’t go into detail of how that’s done or what’s done. But I can tell you that no digital communication is secure. So these communications will be found out. The conversation will be known.
Santore quotes Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute as skeptical of Clemente’s claims:
“Every domestic telephone call in the United States, American citizen to American citizen on U.S. soil, is being recorded, and not only that but this is widely enough known that an FBI agent working counter terrorism was aware of this,” Sanchez said, summarizing Clemente’s account. “And it has successfully been kept secret. That is hard for me to believe.”
But Sanchez declared himself open to being proven wrong. In the light of today’s news, does it sound more plausible to him? If he gets back to us, we’ll let you know.
Update: Sanchez did respond. He says via email that he remains skeptical of the claim that all domestic phone calls are being recorded and archived, and adds:
What has been revealed today, by contrast, I have always said was quite likely. It is, I believe, a gross violation of constitutional principles, but it is at least roughly what you could expect on a very expansive reading of the FISA Amendments Act and section 215 of the Patriot Act. Maybe that’s splitting hairs though: It’s clear that an enormous quantity of partly or wholly domestic communications are being intercepted without particularized warrants, and that is a huge problem.