It is still pretty unclear to me what exactly it was/is. In this New York Times account from a week or so ago it sounds very far-reaching, which would answer the question: Why didn’t the administration go to the FISA court, at least retroactively if nothing else? It seems little or none of this information would have met the “probable cause” standard:
The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of
telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States
as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to
current and former government officials.
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice
networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House
has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into
some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries, they said.
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance
without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American
telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic
and international communications, the officials said….
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians,
besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through
large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might
point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large
The Washington Post had a slightly different account the other day, which makes the program sound more limited, although it was facilitating the “data mining” of other agencies:
Today’s NSA intercepts yield two broad categories of information, said a
former administration official familiar with the program: “content,” which would
include transcripts of a phone call or e-mail, and “non-content,” which would be
records showing, for example, who in the United States was called by, or was
calling, a number in another country thought to have a connection to a terrorist
group. At the same time, NSA tries to limit identifying the names of
” NSA can make either type of information available to other
[intelligence] agencies where relevant, but with appropriate masking of its
origin,” meaning that the source of the information and method of getting it
would be concealed, the former official said.
Agencies that get the information can use it to conduct “data mining,” or
looking for patterns or matches with other databases that they maintain, which
may or may not be specifically geared toward detecting terrorism threats, he
said. “They are seeking to separate the known from the unknown, relationships or
associations,” he added.
The NSA would sometimes monitor telephones, e-mails or fax
communications in cases where individuals in the United States — and
sometimes people they contacted — were linked to an alleged foreign
terrorist group, officials have said. The NSA, officials said, limited its
decisions to follow-up with more electronic surveillance on an individual to
those cases where there was some apparent link to terrorist sources.