WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's national security team acknowledged for the first time yesterday that, when investigating one suspected terrorist, it can read and store the phone records of millions of Americans.
Since it was revealed recently by former systems analyst Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency puts the calling patterns of every American into a database, the Obama administration has assured the nation that such records are rarely searched and, when they are, officials target only suspected international terrorists.
Meanwhile, at a hacker convention in Las Vegas Wednesday, NSA Director Keith Alexander said government methods used to collect telephone and email data helped foil 54 terror plots -- a figure that drew open skepticism from lawmakers.
"Not by any stretch can you get 54 terrorist plots," said the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
Sensing a looming shift in the privacy-versus-security cultural calculus, the White House responded it has ordered the director of national intelligence to recommend changes that could be made to the phone-surveillance program, and President Barack Obama invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House Thursday to discuss their concerns about the surveillance programs.
But testimony before Congress yesterday showed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
It hinges on what's known as "hop" or "chain" analysis. When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can look not just at his phone records, but also the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.
If the average person called 40 unique people, three-hop analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.
The NSA has said it conducted 300 searches of its telephone database last year. Left unsaid until yesterday was that three-hop analysis off those searches could mean scrutinizing the phone records of tens or even hundreds of millions of people.
"So what has been described as a discrete program, to go after people who would cause us harm, when you look at the reach of this program, it envelopes a substantial number of Americans," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.