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Context of 'February 2001 and Beyond: Three US Telecom Firms Cooperate With NSA Surveillance Program; Qwest Refuses'

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Verizon gives the NSA access from within its facilities.Verizon gives the NSA access from within its facilities. [Source: ReallyNews.com]AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth all cooperate with the NSA in monitoring US citizens’ phone and Internet communications (see October 2001). Qwest, however, refuses to cooperate (see February 27, 2001). Qwest officials are unsure that it is legal to hand over customer information to the government without court warrants. The firm’s refusal to participate in the program leaves a gaping hole in the NSA’s database, with the NSA only getting partial coverage of US citizens in the West and Northwest. Until recently, AT&T and other phone companies have routinely insisted on court warrants before turning over call data to government agencies, protocols growing out of the historical concerns of the Bell Telephone system for customer service and privacy. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union will say in 2006 that such insistence on court warrants was a bedrock principle of the Bell systems. “No court order, no customer information—period.” he says. “That’s how it was for decades.” The Bell system was also concerned with following the law, specifically the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits telephone companies from giving out such information without court orders. President Bush and other government officials will later say that his 2002 executive order allowing the NSA to wiretap American phones without warrants (see Early 2002) gives the telephone companies legal cover, but many legal experts and civil liberties groups disagree. After 9/11, the NSA approaches the four companies with offers to pay for US citizens’ call histories and for updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ phone habits. Three of the four agree to the NSA proposal, but again Qwest does not. An AT&T spokesman will say in May 2006, “We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.” BellSouth will say that the company “does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.” Verizon will add that the company acts “in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.” Neither AT&T nor Qwest will comment at all. [USA Today, 5/11/2006] The NSA asks Qwest to install monitoring equipment on its “Class 5” switching facilities, which monitor the most localized calls as well as some international traffic. The NSA claims it will only single out foreigners on Qwest’s network. In 2006, a government official will say that the CEO of Qwest, Joe Nacchio, misunderstood what the agency was asking. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]
Qwest Refuses to Cooperate - In 2006, sources will recall that at the time of the NSA requests, Nacchio is so disturbed by the idea of the NSA wiretapping phones without warrants, and is so unsure of what information would be collected and how it might be used, that he decides the company will not cooperate. The NSA tells Qwest and the other companies that not only would it compile and maintain data on US citizens’ phone habits, but it may well share that information with other US government agencies, including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. Indeed, the NSA shares what it calls “product” with other intelligence agencies, and perhaps with other governmental agencies. After Nacchio decides not to comply with the NSA’s request, the agency begins pressuring the firm, accusing it of threatening national security and implying that Qwest might not be eligible for future governmental contracts. When Qwest asks the NSA to take its proposal to the FISA Court (FISC), the agency refuses, making Qwest that much more dubious about the NSA operation, especially when NSA lawyers say they won’t take the proposal to FISC because that court “might not agree with them.” The NSA also refuses to ask for authorization from the attorney general’s office. Nacchio will leave Qwest under fire for allegedly misleading shareholders about the company’s financial prospects, but his successor, Richard Notebaert, continues to refuse to cooperate with the NSA. [USA Today, 5/11/2006; USA Today, 5/11/2006] Interestingly, by 2004 the Federal Communications Commission will list Qwest and Verizon as essentially the same company. [Federal Communications Commission, 12/10/2004]
Other Firms Deny Participation - In May 2006, after USA Today reports on the telecom firms’ participation in the surveillance (see May 11, 2006), both Verizon and BellSouth will deny providing the NSA with data on their customers, though they have previously acknowledged their cooperation (see February 5, 2006). A BellSouth spokesman will say, somewhat ingenuously, “We’re not aware of any database that NSA has, so we’re not aware of our customer information being there at all.” And Verizon conspicuously fails to mention possible data from MCI, the long-distance provider it has recently bought. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will say of the various companies’ participations, “The thing that concerns me is some [companies] said yes and some said no” when asked to participate. “If the government really thought this was legal and necessary, why let some say yes and some say no? It’s either legal and necessary, or it’s not.” [USA Today, 5/16/2006]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, Qwest, Richard Notebaert, Verizon Communications, National Security Agency, USA Today, George W. Bush, Joe Nacchio, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, BellSouth, Central Intelligence Agency, AT&T, Consumers Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Gene Kimmelman, Federal Communications Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former AT&T employee Mark Klein.Former AT&T employee Mark Klein. [Source: PBS]The National Security Agency, as part of its huge, covert, and possibly illegal wiretapping program directed at US citizens (see Spring 2001 and After September 11, 2001), begins collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by telecommunications firms such as AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth (see February 5, 2006). The media will not report on this database until May 2006 (see May 11, 2006). The program collects information on US citizens not suspected of any crime or any terrorist connections. Although informed sources say the NSA is not listening to or recording actual conversations, the agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity. “It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” says one anonymous source. The NSA intends “to create a database of every call ever made.” As a result, the NSA has detailed records of the phone activities of tens of millions of US citizens, from local calls to family and friends to international calls. The three telecommunications companies are working with the NSA in part under the Communications Assistance Act for Law Enforcement (CALEA) (see January 1, 1995 and June 13, 2006) and in part under contract to the agency.
Surveillance Much More Extensive Than Acknowledged - The wiretapping program, which features electronic surveillance of US citizens without court warrants or judicial oversight, is far more extensive than anything the White House or the NSA has ever publicly acknowledged. President Bush will repeatedly insist that the NSA focuses exclusively on monitoring international calls where one of the call participants is a known terrorist suspect or has a connection to terrorist groups (see December 17, 2005 and May 11, 2006), and he and other officials always insist that domestic calls are not monitored. This will be proven false. The NSA has become expert at “data mining,” sifting through reams of information in search of patterns. The warrantless wiretapping database is one source of information for the NSA’s data mining. As long as the NSA does not collect “personal identifiers”—names, Social Security numbers, street addresses, and the like—such data mining is legal. But the actual efficacy of the wiretapping program in learning about terrorists and possibly preventing terrorist attacks is unclear at best. And many wonder if the NSA is not repeating its activities from the 1950s and 1960s, when it conducted “Operation Shamrock” (see 1945-1975), a 20-year program of warrantless wiretaps of international phone calls at the behest of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Operation Shamrock, among other things, led to the 1978 passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). [USA Today, 5/11/2006] In May 2006, former NSA director Bobby Ray Inman will say, “[T]his activity is not authorized” (see May 12, 2006). [Democracy Now!, 5/12/2006]
Secret Data Mining Center - In May 2006, retired AT&T technician Mark Klein, a 22-year veteran of the firm, will file a court affidavit saying that he saw the firm construct a secret data-mining center in its San Francisco switching center that would let the NSA monitor domestic and international communications (see January 2003). And former AT&T workers say that, as early as 2002, AT&T has maintained a secret area in its Bridgeton, Missouri, facility that is likely being used for NSA surveillance (see Late 2002-Early 2003).
Domestic Surveillance Possibly Began Before 9/11 - Though Bush officials admit to beginning surveillance of US citizens only after the 9/11 attacks, some evidence indicates that the domestic surveillance program began some time before 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, and July 2001).

Entity Tags: Terrorist Surveillance Program, Verizon Communications, Mark Klein, George W. Bush, AT&T, BellSouth, Central Intelligence Agency, Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Qwest, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties


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