NSA eavesdropping: How it might work

Attorney General Gonzales plays it mum, but others offer insights into the agency's surveillance options.

This is the second in a two-part series. Part one appeared Monday: A survey asking telecommunications and Internet companies if they cooperated with the National Security Agency.

WASHINGTON--Even a panel of determined senators couldn't convince Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to divulge much about how the massive surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency actually works.

Gonzales told a Senate committee on Monday that he was not "here to discuss the operational details of that program or any other classified activity." He refused to answer a series of questions such as the number of people who have been wiretapped, the safeguards put into place, and how many NSA analysts are involved in the operation.


What's new:
General Alberto Gonzales refused to divulge much about how the massive surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency actually works.

Bottom line:
A series of interviews reveals how the program may work, including buddying up to a company with access to cables, tapping transoceanic cables on land and even underwater.

More stories on the NSA program

But a series of interviews of technical experts by CNET News.com during the last few weeks may shed some light on how the program--authorized by President Bush soon after Sept. 11, 2001--works in practice.

It's hardly a secret that the NSA specializes in electronic surveillance, called communications intelligence in the vernacular of spies. Author James Bamford's 1982 book, "The Puzzle Palace," documented how the NSA created hundreds of "intercept stations"--ultrasophisticated, hypersensitive radio receivers designed to pluck both military signals and civilian telephone calls out of the air.

That worked well enough when the bulk of international communications were transmitted by bouncing them off satellites. Today, however, an undersea web of fiber-optic cables spans the globe--and those carry the vast majority of voice and data that leave the United States.

Jim Hayes, president of the Fiber Optic Association, a California-based professional organization, says 99 percent of the world's long-distance communications travel through fiber links. The remaining 1 percent, he says, are satellite-based, mainly in places like Africa, South America and less developed parts of Asia.

It's easiest to tap those underwater cables when they make landfall instead of trying to do it underwater, analysts say.

Alberto Gonzales
Credit: Anne Broache
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
fields questions from senators on

"On land, it's not nearly as difficult," said Tim Chovanak, a defense consultant who specializes in network taps and digital forensics. "The easiest thing to do would be to somehow get an agreement with a provider and just simply co-exist in a building, one of the main fiber stations, (peering) points or whatever. In other words, work out something with either a long-haul provider or with an employee."

A survey conducted by CNET News.com and published Monday found not one provider willing to acknowledge participation, with backbone providers being among the most reticent. An article in USA Today on Monday said AT&T, MCI and Sprint were cooperating with the NSA. In addition, AT&T is facing a class action lawsuit filed this week that alleges cooperation with the NSA in violation of federal law.

If a backbone provider cooperated, it would be legally tricky. Under federal law, any person or company who helps someone "intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication"--unless specifically authorized by law--could face criminal charges. Even if cooperation is found to be legal, it could be embarrassing to acknowledge opening up customers' private communications to the perusal of a spy agency.

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