05/15/06 — Perspective: Telephone data issue overblown

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Perspective: Telephone data issue overblown

Intelligence shortcomings have been linked to miscalculations on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The 9-11 airliner hijackings and disasters have been blamed in part on poor intelligence.

Americans have demanded more of our intelligence agencies. They have been getting it - and with some good results.

But now the headlines blare: “Furor erupts over phone database.”

USA Today, The New York Times and other news agencies have led their reports with the story that the National Security Agency “has collected records of millions of domestic phone calls, even as President Bush assured Americans that their privacy is fiercely protected.”

There is a chorus of outrage on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Let’s get something straight here.

In the first place, the NSA has not been collecting recordings of telephone conversations. It has been assembling the numbers of calls made between various stations.

It isn’t interested in chatter calls between teenagers or gossip calls between neighbors or business communications.

But from various intelligence sources, profiles of potentially dangerous people can emerge. A database of phone calls - numbers, not conversations - can provide important pieces of a puzzle pointing to conspiracies to commit acts of terrorism.

That’s the way intelligence works. In the hands of experienced analysts, the all-important big picture is made up of small bits of information.

The collection of the telephone data base has been going on since shortly after 9-11 and there has been no reason for any of us to feel our rights or privacy have been violated or compromised.

But this data might well have been important in letting our intelligence people focus on potentially dangerous things in the making.

What we are reading about and hearing on the networks today amounts to little more than sensationalism, pretended outrage and political posturing.

The real concern should not be over some intelligence analyst and his computer counting and assembling numbers of phone calls, but on senseless pretensions of outrage that could compromise the safety of our people.

Published in Editorials on May 15, 2006 11:45 AM