...consider this entirely hypothetical example. Imagine that the United States is intercepting al Qaeda communications in Yemen. Its leader there calls his weapons expert and says, "Our agent in the U.S. needs technical assistance constructing a weapon for an imminent operation. I've told him to use a throwaway cell phone to call you tomorrow at 11 a.m. on your throwaway phone. When you answer, he'll give you nothing other than the number of a second phone. You will buy another phone in the bazaar and call him back on the second number at 2 p.m."Baker says this would keep U.S. intelligence services from locating the would-be bomber. Especially if they kept swapping phones. All Big Brother has is a calling pattern.
So how would the NSA go about finding the one person in the United States whose calling pattern matched the terrorists' plan? Well, it could ask every carrier to develop the capability to store all calls and search them for patterns like this one. But that would be very expensive, and its effectiveness would really only be as good as the weakest, least cooperative carrier. And even then it wouldn't work without massive, real-time information sharing -- any reasonably intelligent U.S.-based terrorist would just buy his first throwaway phone from one carrier and his second phone from a different carrier.So the NSA would need data from all carriers providing service to Yemen, and to get that they'd have to go to the courts--Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in this case--and convince jurists that they had legitimate reasons for so doing. Further, NSA (the Executive branch of government) would have to inform the leaders of both parties in the legislative branch what they were up to. I.e., there were checks and balances in place to protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
As Baker says, if you still don't like the program, what's your alternative for tracking terrorists who most surely do exist and want to harm those same law-abiding Americans--as recently as a few weeks ago during the Boston Marathon?
Compared to what?