by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist.

To believe the National Security Agency’s phone call database is an effective tool in fighting terrorism, you have to make two assumptions: first, that terrorists regularly use the public telephone network to communicate; second, that the NSA can divine what terrorists are doing by browsing through a list of several billion calls made between people living in the United States. Both are shaky assumptions.

As early as 1996, al-Qaida had started to abandon use of the public telephone system. That year, Ziyad Khalil, a student living here in Columbia, purchased a satellite phone that was used by al-Qaida to plan the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When President Bill Clinton launched reprisals against remote locations in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden learned satellite phones could also be traced.

An article from Parameters, the U.S. Army’s senior professional journal, analyzed al-Qaida’s use of the Internet: “Evidence strongly suggests that terrorists used the Internet to plan their operations for 9/11. … As recently as 16 September 2002, al Qaeda cells operating in America reportedly were using Internet-based phone services to communicate with cells overseas.”

These “Internet-based phone services” are readily available for download and allow you to make a call from one PC to another over the Internet by means of Voice Over IP (VoIP, pronounced vee-oh-eye-pea or sometimes voyp). VoIP calls don’t register with telephone companies and would not be in the NSA’s call-record database. VoIP calls also have the advantage of being nearly impossible to wiretap because they can be automatically encrypted.

Even if you assume al-Qaida is still using the public telephone network to communicate, the utility of such a database is highly questionable.

“Terrorist activity is so limited, and we have so little to go on, that you’re not going to be able to put together a pattern you can search for,” said Jim Harper of the Cato Institute, an adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. “You can’t put together an algorithm that finds it.” The proverbial needle in a haystack.

The NSA program might be legal. Telephone call records are not necessarily protected information and can be purchased from commercial companies. But we can’t seriously believe this database is effective in fighting terrorism.

Instead of tracking terrorists, a more useful purpose for the NSA database is “opposition research.” The next time the White House sets out to destroy a critic’s career, it won’t have to resort to the crude methods used with Joe Wilson in the Niger uranium debacle. Instead, it can browse the NSA records to see whom their critics are calling. Perhaps there was a late-night call to a mistress or a phone-sex line. The next critic will be much easier to sink with this database online and ready.

If someone in the Bush administration decides to “Swift Boat” a candidate for Senate this fall, the NSA database will be the first place to turn. Did the candidate ever make a call to a counselor or a psychiatrist? If so, it is just one step farther to have the FBI raid the psychiatrist’s records to find “embarrassing” information. Think this is too farfetched an idea? Thirty years ago, that’s what the Nixon administration did to Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers – all in the name of national security.

Combine the NSA call database with information from other databases – such as names, addresses, Social Security numbers, tax records or even voting records – and it becomes even more powerful.

Someone in the federal government leaked information about the NSA database program. I tend not to be conspiratorial, but I wonder why it was leaked now. Did the leaker discover opposition research was the real purpose of this program instead of tracking terrorists?

This whole matter is depressing. The best-case scenario is that the government is ineffective and wasteful in its attempt to track al-Qaida’s activities. The worst case is that the Bush administration is using the NSA for dirty tricks. Either way, the NSA has better things to do than read our telephone records.