James Bamford is our smartest writer on the NSA. The Puzzle Palace was the first important book on the Agency. His piece in The Atlantic on NSA’s real collection capacity is scary.
NSA personnel, the customs inspectors of the information superhighway, have the ultimate goal of intercepting and reviewing every syllable and murmur zapping into, out of, or through the United States. They are close to achieving it. More than a dozen years ago, an NSA director gave an indication of the agency’s capability. “Just one intelligence-collection system,” said Admiral William O. Studeman, referring to a listening post such as Sugar Grove, “can generate a million inputs per half hour.” Today, with the secret cooperation of much of the telecommunications industry, massive dishes vacuuming the airwaves, and electronic “packet sniffers,” software that monitors network traffic, diverting e-mail and other data from fiber-optic cables, the NSA’s hourly take is in the tens of millions of communications.
I’m ready for the national debate on privacy.