The recent controversy over the National Security Agency "eavesdropping" on Americans with the assistance of AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, is another case of media distortion. First of all is the fact that the NSA is not even "eavesdropping", they are acquiring phone records. This is part of a form of communications intelligence called traffic analysis.
Traffic analysis does not involve listening to words. Instead it tracks the pattern of communications, and has long been recognized as a valuable means of gathering intelligence. Changes in the patterns can tell the NSA (or any other agency) that something is up (through an increased amount of traffic), or who the "big fish" are (simply by seeing who is talking to whom). This effort can even locate new terrorists without knowing what has been said. If a known terrorist starts having lengthy conversations with someone new, traffic analysis can pick that up. If the communications suddenly stop, it can be a sign that the bad guys are on the move, or they are about to attack.
However, this is a form of intelligence that can have its failures. If an enemy knows that traffic analysis is being done, it can take steps to deceive the analysts. In 1941, Japan did just that in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese played a series of radio games (often with false call signs) to distract American intelligence. Another step could be to shift to measures that cannot be intercepted and analyzed, like the use of couriers. After previous leaks, al-Qaeda has been known to shift from telecommunications to couriers and face-to-face meetings.
Ultimately, this latest round of media reporting is yet another case of the media blowing an intelligence operation. In this case, the damage not only hampers the NSA by revealing the program, it also pointed terrorists to a "safe haven", thanks to the reports about Qwest's non-cooperation. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)