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Please begin with an informative title:

Previously, and without shame, published at Krebscycle.

"Imagine," the BBC exclaimed last month [...] "a global spying network that can eavesdrop on every single phone call, fax, or E-mail, anywhere on the planet. It sounds like science fiction, but it's true."

That's from a 1999 article bySeymour Hersh.  The phrase I cut out is: "one of hundreds of such reports in the past ten years".   Not that long  afterwards, the NSA would fail to understand the significance of intercepted conversations about the upcoming 9/11 attacks.  The rest of the paragraph is:

The agency does routinely collect vast amounts of digital data, and it is capable of targeting an individual telephone line or computer terminal in many places around the world. But active and retired N.S.A. officials have repeatedly told me that the agency does not yet have the software to make sense out of more than a tiny fraction of the huge array of random communications that are collected. If the agency were able to filter through the traffic, the officials noted, international terrorists like Osama bin Laden would not be able to remain in hiding.

And from the 9/11Commission Report

The National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts calls between 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen, but does not notify the FBI that Almihdhar is in the US. However, the NSA disseminates reports about some of the calls, which are made from phones registered to Nawaf Alhazmi (see Spring-Summer 2000). The NSA will later say that it does not usually intercept calls between the US and other countries at this time, as it believes that this should be done by the FBI. Despite this, the NSA acquires information about such calls and provides the information to the FBI in regular reporting and in response to specific requests. The FBI, which has a standing request for such information about any calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998), then uses this information in its investigations based on warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The NSA will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry the reason the FBI is not notified about Almihdhar is because it does not realize that Almihdhar is in the US. However, no explanation is offered for why the NSA fails to realize this.

To summarize:

  • It was common knowledge that NSA was intercepting calls and emails all over the world by 1999 and for years before
  • By 1999, NSA was under political pressure to upgrade software to be able to filter important data out of intercepted communications in particular to help find terrorists like Bin Ladin.
  • After the intelligence failures that allowed 9/11, it was known that NSA was intercepting phone conversations into the USA that were very important but was not sharing that information on a timely basis with the FBI (don't forget, however, that any intelligence failures by NSA were overshadowed by the negligent, inept and lazy Bush administration's disinterest when presented with alarming indications of the plot).

To summarize even more:

1) Everyone knew NSA was intercepting calls

2) There were very good reasons for doing so

DailyKos appendix:
Nothing written above indicates approval for management of NSA, NSA operations, or the current or past form of Judicial and Congressional oversight. In fact, I believe that the insular and unsupervised culture of NSA leads to both missed important intelligence and infringements of privacy.

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