Metadata

| Sun Dec. 14, 2008 2:28 PM EST

METADATA....So what was it that Jack Goldsmith and James Comey threatened to resign over in 2004? It was some aspect of the NSA's surveillance program, and according to Barton Gellman in Angler, it wasn't just Goldsmith and Comey who were up in arms about it: virtually the entire senior staff of the Justice Department was ready to resign over it until President Bush decided to back down at the last minute. But exactly what part of the program caused the rebellion? Daniel Klaidman reports in Newsweek:

Two knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek that the clash erupted over a part of Bush's espionage program that had nothing to do with the wiretapping of individual suspects. Rather, Comey and others threatened to resign because of the vast and indiscriminate collection of communications data....The program's classified code name was "Stellar Wind," though when officials needed to refer to it on the phone, they called it "SW."

....The NSA's powerful computers became vast storehouses of "metadata." They collected the telephone numbers of callers and recipients in the United States, and the time and duration of the calls. They also collected and stored the subject lines of e-mails, the times they were sent, and the addresses of both senders and recipients. By one estimate, the amount of data the NSA could suck up in close to real time was equivalent to one quarter of the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica per second. (The actual content of calls and e-mails was not being monitored as part of this aspect of the program, the sources say.) All this metadata was then sifted by the NSA, using complex algorithms to detect patterns and links that might indicate terrorist activity.

The metadata sweep has been part of this story almost since the beginning (see here and here, for example), and the New York Times reported last year that it was data mining of some sort that probably sparked the rebellion at DoJ and the showdown in John Ashcroft's hospital room. So this report isn't entirely new. Still, it does add a bit of meat to the bones of the story, and then adds a disturbing coda: apparently we still don't know if, in the end, the rebellion worked:

Days after the hospital clash, Bush shut down the massive data-collection program and stopped searches of the data that had already been stored. (It's unclear whether the administration has since found new legal justification to return to at least some of these activities.)

Looks like the ball's in your court, president-elect Obama. At least, it will be soon, anyway.

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