With only general knowledge of NSA operations, I’d say that the Post pretty much nailed the project on the head. The only problem is the loaded phrase “data mining”, conjuring up images of John Poindexter looking at your credit card receipts. It’s not a sin for an agency to mine its own data (e.g., every time I ask my secretary to get the “Smith” file for me, she is data mining). What data mining, AKA “information dominance”, is designed to do is to use computer technology to look across wide swaths of databases (in this case, phone call data), and look for relationships and “tippers and cuers”, information that raises red flags and leads to further investigation using traditional investigatory techniques. This is where the intel community really is “connecting the dots.”
Andy McCarthy’s description of how to handle non-content data is interesting, as well (we used the phrase “externals”, with the content of the call “internals” since Intel Oversight policy declares it all “content”). The Army Intelligence community (including now-Director NSA Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander) argued voiciferously to NSA that externals were not protected under the Constitution, that FISA (with its Patriot Act amendments) did not protect externals, and that it was a myth that Intelligence Oversight rules prohibited the exploitation of US-based-foreign-calls-to-international-terrorists external phone call data (in other words, many felt that there was a reasonable expectation to privacy to external data, contrary to Smith v. Maryland, and this myth seemed to me to be an offshoot of the Gorelick Wall).
NSA lawyers were unimpressed with our argument and refused to give us the full information on US Persons based on external phone call data (I should know, I personally made that argument to the Deputy General Counsel). There were also folks among senior Army leadership who seemed less than willing to assist us in “connecting the dots”, as well.