Newsweek reported over the weekend that “two knowledgeable sources” confirmed that the 2004 clash between the White House and the Justice Department over the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program was triggered by the NSA’s “vast and indiscriminate collection of communications data“:
These sources…describe a system in which the National Security Agency, with cooperation from some of the country’s largest telecommunications companies, was able to vacuum up the records of calls and e-mails of tens of millions of average Americans between September 2001 and March 2004. [...]
The NSA’s powerful computers became vast storehouses of “metadata.” They collected the telephone numbers of callers and recipients in the United States, and the time and duration of the calls. They also collected and stored the subject lines of e-mails, the times they were sent, and the addresses of both senders and recipients. … All this metadata was then sifted by the NSA, using complex algorithms to detect patterns and links that might indicate terrorist activity.
The Justice Department concluded, over White House objections, that the data mining operation constituted “electronic surveillance” and as such was in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Ultimately, the disagreement led to the now infamous confrontation at Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside.