Commentary from Ars technical speculates on the technology behind the massive eavesdropping. Bruce Schneier has a long commentary on historical abuses as well as the NSA's use of Echelon, a massive initiative that monitors voice, fax, and data communications and is used for data mining of perhaps 3 billion communications per day.
At issue are the broad, sweeping powers the NSA now have to eavesdrop on Americans without their knowledge. The orders that circumvent privacy were cloaked under the popular banner of "fighting terrorism" but it has impact on all forms of communication and security now passing throught the U.S. The government continues to allow for secret surveillance without the court-approved warrants that would normally be required for domestic spying.
Update 2005-12-21: added the affirmation that the New York Times knew about the story for more than a year but chose not to release it to the public until recently, citing national security concerns.
Posted by: Kelly Martin