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Context of 'May 12, 2006: Telecoms Sued over Allegedly Illegal Cooperation with NSA’s Domestic Spying Program'

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The National Security Agency seeks the assistance of global telecommunications corporation AT&T to help it set up a domestic call monitoring site to eavesdrop on US citizens’ phone communications, according to court papers filed in June 2006 as part of a lawsuit against AT&T (see October 2001). The NSA is expressly forbidden from spying on US citizens within US borders unless authorized by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court (FISC) (see 1978). When the NSA program, which wiretaps phone and email communications often without court warrants, becomes public knowledge well over four years later (see December 15, 2005), President Bush, NSA Director Michael Hayden, and other White House and government officials will assert that the program was set up in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If the claims made in the lawsuit are accurate, these assertions are provably false. “The Bush administration asserted this became necessary after 9/11,” lawyer Carl Mayer will claim in 2006. “This undermines that assertion.” Unbeknownst to most Americans, the NSA is operating a secret “data mining” operation that, by 2006, will have compiled phone records and contact information on millions of domestic phone and email communications. The NSA project is code-named “Project Groundbreaker,” and is ostensibly an above-board attempt announced in June 2000 to have AT&T and other firms help modernize its technological capabilities. The project originally seeks to have AT&T build a network operations center that duplicates AT&T’s facility in Bedminster, New Jersey; this plan will be altered when the NSA decides it will be better served by acquiring the monitoring technology itself. The agency is seeking bids for a project to “modernize and improve its information technology infrastructure,” including the privatization of its “non-mission related” systems support. [TechWeb, 6/13/2000; Bloomberg, 6/30/2006] Groundbreaker’s privatization project is expected to provide up to $5 billion in government contracts to various private firms such as AT&T, Computer Sciences Corporation, and OAO Corporation, [Computerworld, 12/4/2000; Government Executive, 9/1/2001] and up to 750 NSA employees will become private contractors. Hayden, who has aggressively instituted a corporate management protocol to enhance productivity and has brought in numerous senior managers and agency executives from private defense firms, is a strong proponent of privatizing and outsourcing much of the NSA’s technological operations, and in 2001 will say that he wants the agency to focus on its primary task of breaking codes and conducting surveillance. Hayden does not admit that Groundbreaker is part of a larger NSA domestic surveillance program, [Government Executive, 9/1/2001] and publicly, NSA officials say that the project is limited to administrative and logistics functions. [Computerworld, 12/4/2000] The covert data mining portion of the project is code-named “Pioneer.” A former, unnamed employee of the NSA, [Bloomberg, 6/30/2006] and a former AT&T technician, Mark Klein, will provide the key information about Groundbreaker (see Late 2002, July 7, 2009 and December 15-31, 2005). Klein will say in 2006 that he saw the NSA construct a clandestine area within its switching center in San Francisco, and saw NSA technicians shunt fiber optic cable carrying Internet traffic into that area, which contains a large data bank and secret data mining hardware (see April 6, 2006). Klein will say he knew that the NSA built other such facilities in other switching locations. He will go on to say that the NSA did not work with just AT&T traffic; when AT&T’s network connected with other networks, the agency acquired access to that traffic as well. [Democracy Now!, 5/12/2006] The information about AT&T and the NSA will become public knowledge after the 2006 filing of a lawsuit against AT&T and other telecommunications firms (see May 12, 2006 and June 26, 2006).

Entity Tags: Mark Klein, Michael Hayden, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Bush administration (43), Carl Mayer, Computer Sciences Corporation, AT&T, National Security Agency, OAO Corporation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Joseph Nacchio.Joseph Nacchio. [Source: publicity photo via Business Week]Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio meets with NSA officials in Fort Meade, Maryland, to discuss two topics of mutual interest: a $100 million infrastructure upgrade that Qwest, one of the US’s largest telecommunications firms, can perform for the agency, and another topic that remains classified. (The meeting will be revealed in heavily redacted court documents released six years later—see October 12, 2007). Observers believe the discussion is about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program of US citizens, which the government will conceal for years (see December 15, 2005), and which the Bush administration will insist did not come about until after the 9/11 attacks (see December 17, 2005). Nacchio meets with NSA officials to discuss the agency’s “Groundbreaker” project (see February 2001), which the NSA will later claim is merely a modernization and upgrade of its technological infrastructure. A June 2006 lawsuit against AT&T over that firm’s cooperation with the NSA alleges that “Groundbreaker” is part of a secret domestic surveillance operation. According to the court documents, Nacchio and the NSA are unable to agree on an unrevealed topic of discussion; after that disagreement, the NSA will withdraw its “Groundbreaker” contract from consideration for Qwest. Nacchio, according to the documents, believes that the unrevealed topic of discussion involves illegal and inappropriate actions. He asks the agency officials whether “a warrant or other legal process had been secured.” The NSA officials, according to the documents, have a “disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process,” leading Nacchio to conclude that “the requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act.” When Nacchio refuses to cooperate with the NSA, the agency withdraws its offer of the “Groundbreaker” contract. [Raw Story, 10/12/2007; Marketwatch, 10/13/2007] James F.X. Payne, the former chief of Qwest’s government business unit, will later tell investigators, “There was a feeling also that the NSA acted as agents for other government agencies.” [National Journal, 11/2/2007] In 2007, the New York Times will reveal that Qwest refuses to give the NSA access to its most localized communications switches, carrying largely domestic phone calls. The arrangement would have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order. [New York Times, 12/16/2007] The NSA has more success with other companies—and has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Qwest as well (see February 2001).

Entity Tags: Qwest, New York Times, James F.X. Payne, Bush administration (43), AT&T, Joe Nacchio, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

USA Today headline.USA Today headline. [Source: CBS News]USA Today reports that “[t]he National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by the nation’s three biggest telecommunications providers, AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth,” according to “people with direct knowledge of the arrangement.” None of the sources would allow USA Today to identify them by name, job, or affiliation. The USA Today story claims that the NSA program “does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations,” but does use “the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity,” according to their sources. One source says that the NSA program is compiling “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” with the goal of creating “a database of every call ever made” within US borders. President Bush has said that the NSA program is focused exclusively on international calls, and for the calls to be recorded, “one end of the communication must be outside the United States.” However, this is now shown not to be the case (see January 16, 2004). A US intelligence official says that the NSA program is not recording the actual phone calls themselves, but is collecting what he calls “external” data about the communications to allow the agency to emply “social network analysis” for insight into how terrorist networks are connected with one another. Another large telecommunications company, Qwest, has refused to help the NSA eavesdrop on customer calls (see February 2001, February 2001 and Beyond, and February 27, 2001). USA Today’s sources say that the NSA eavesdropping program began after the 9/11 attacks, a claim that is not bolstered by the facts (see 1997, February 27, 2000, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, February 2001 and Beyond, February 2001, Spring 2001, April 2001, April 4, 2001, July 2001, Before September 11, 2001, and Early 2002). The sources say that the three companies agreed to provide “call-detail records,” lists of their customers’ calling histories, and updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ calling habits. In return, the sources say, the NSA offered to pay the firms for their cooperation. After the three firms agreed to help the agency, USA Today writes, “the NSA’s domestic program began in earnest” (see After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, September 2002, and Spring 2004). NSA spokesman Don Weber says the agency is operating strictly “within the law,” but otherwise refuses to comment. Former US prosecutor Paul Butler says that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs surveillance operations by US intelligence agencies, “does not prohibit the government from doing data mining” (see 1978). White House press spokesman Dana Perino says, “There is no domestic surveillance without court approval,” and all surveillance activities undertaken by government agencies “are lawful, necessary, and required for the pursuit of al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists.” All government-sponsored intelligence activities “are carefully reviewed and monitored,” she adds, and says that “all appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on the intelligence efforts of the United States” (see October 11, 2001 and October 25, 2001 and November 14, 2001). Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, refuses to discuss the agency’s operations, saying: “Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide. However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law.” All three firms released similar comments saying that they would not discuss “matters of national security,” but were complying with the law in their alleged cooperation with the NSA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is suing AT&T for what it calls its complicity in the NSA’s “illegal” domestic surveillance program (see January 31, 2006). [USA Today, 5/11/2006]

Entity Tags: Verizon Communications, USA Today, Qwest, Paul Butler, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Jane Harman, AT&T, BellSouth, National Security Agency, Dana Perino, Don Weber

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Two public interest lawyers sue Verizon Communications for $5 billion, claiming the telecommunications firm violated privacy laws by giving the phone records of its customers to the NSA for that agency’s secret, warrantless domestic surveillance program. Lawyers Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer are asking that Verizon stop turning over its records to the NSA without either a court order or the consent of the customer. Afran says of the NSA program, “This is the largest and most vast intrusion of civil liberties we’ve ever seen in the United States.” [CBS News, 5/12/2006] Days later, AT&T and BellSouth are added to the lawsuit. [CNN, 5/17/2006]
Verizon Helped Build an NSA Database? - The day before, the press reports that the NSA has built a database of millions of domestic phone records since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, using records from Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T (see May 11, 2006). Former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio, whose firm refused to cooperate with the NSA, says that he was approached months before the attacks to help set up such a program (see February 27, 2001). The NSA has the power, under President Bush’s interpretation of his wartime authority, to have the agency eavesdrop on international calls made to or from the US, but cannot legally eavesdrop on internal calls unless it has a court order. The lawsuit claims that the telecoms violated the Constitution and the Telecommunications Act by giving its records to the government without court authorization. The lawsuit seeks $1,000 for each violation of the Telecommunications Act, or $5 billion if the case is certified as a class-action suit. The lawyers are seeking documents detailing the origins of the NSA program, as well as Bush’s own role in authorizing the program. “Federal law prohibits the phone companies from giving records to the government without a warrant,” says Afran. “There was no warrant, nor was there any attempt to get warrants, which is in violation of the constitution and the Telecommunications Act.” [CBS News, 5/12/2006; CNET News, 5/15/2006] Afran says, “One of the purposes of this case is to, quite frankly, hold the threat of financial destruction over the heads of the phone companies to make them abandon this policy of cooperating with warrantless searches by the government.” [National Public Radio, 5/17/2006] The lawsuit alleges that Verizon constructed a dedicated fiber optic line from New Jersey to a large military base in Quantico, Virginia, that allowed government officials to gain access to all communications flowing through the carrier’s operations center. A former consultant who worked on internal security will later say he had tried numerous times to install safeguards on the line to prevent hacking on the system, as he was doing for other lines at the operations center, but he was prevented from doing so by a senior security official. One of the allegations against Verizon in the lawsuit is made by Philadelphia resident Norman LeBoon, who says after he read of the alleged surveillance of US citizens, he began asking Verizon if his landline communications were being shared. LeBoon says he eventually spoke with “Ellen” in Verizon customer service, who told him, “I can tell you, Mr. LeBoon, that your records have been shared with the government, but that’s between you and me.… They [Verizon] are going to deny it because of national security. The government is denying it and we have to deny it, too. Around here we are saying that Verizon has ‘plausible deniability.’” [Truthdig, 8/9/2007]
AT&T Grants Unlimited Access? - The lawsuit claims that in February 2001, days before Qwest was approached, NSA officials met with AT&T officials to discuss replicating an AT&t network center to give the agency access to all the global phone and e-mail traffic that ran through it (see February 2001).
Earlier Reporting Made Key Error - Earlier reporting of the NSA’s cooperation with the telecoms got a key detail wrong, says telecom analyst Scott Cleland: “What I think people got wrong with the original reporting, was that this was local phone companies tracking local phone calls. What is clear now is they were tracking long distance calls.” [National Public Radio, 5/17/2006]

Entity Tags: Norman LeBoon, Qwest, National Security Agency, George W. Bush, Joe Nacchio, Michael Hayden, Bruce Afran, Carl Mayer, Verizon Communications

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lawyers file court documents alleging that the National Security Agency (NSA) worked with AT&T to set up a domestic wiretapping site seven months before the 9/11 attacks. The papers are filed as part of a lawsuit, McMurray v. Verizon Communications, which cites as plaintiffs AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth customers whose privacy was allegedly violated by the NSA warrantless wiretapping program (see May 12, 2006); it also alleges that the firms, along with the NSA and President Bush, violated the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and the US Constitution. AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth have been accused of working with the NSA to set up domestic call monitoring sites (see October 2001). Evidence that the NSA set up domestic surveillance operations at least seven months before the 9/11 attacks is at the core of the lawsuit (see Spring 2001). The suit is similar to one filed against AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF—see January 31, 2006) and other such lawsuits. A lawyer for the plaintiffs in McMurray, Carl Mayer, says: “The Bush administration asserted this [the warrantless wiretapping program] became necessary after 9/11. This undermines that assertion.” AT&T spokesman Dave Pacholczyk responds, “The US Department of Justice has stated that AT&T may neither confirm nor deny AT&T’s participation in the alleged NSA program because doing so would cause ‘exceptionally grave harm to national security’ and would violate both civil and criminal statutes.” Verizon has denied being asked by the NSA for its customer phone records, and has refused to confirm or deny “whether it has any relationship to the classified NSA program.” BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher says: “We never turned over any records to the NSA. We’ve been clear all along that they’ve never contacted us. Nobody in our company has ever had any contact with the NSA.” The NSA domestic wiretapping program is known as “Pioneer Groundbreaker,” a part of the larger “Project Groundbreaker” (see February 2001). According to Mayer and his fellow lawyer Bruce Afran, an unnamed former employee of AT&T provided them with information about NSA’s approach to AT&T. (That former employee will later be revealed as retired technician Mark Klein—see Late 2002, July 7, 2009, December 15-31, 2005, and April 6, 2006). The lawsuit is on a temporary hiatus while a judicial panel rules on a government request to assign all of the telecommunications lawsuits to a single judge. [Bloomberg, 6/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Verizon Wireless, US Department of Justice, National Security Agency, George W. Bush, Jeff Battcher, Bruce Afran, BellSouth, AT&T, Mark Klein, Carl Mayer, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Dave Pacholczyk

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann reveals what may be a personal stake in the Bush administration’s push for immunity for telecommunications companies who helped the NSA spy on Americans (see January 28, 2008). Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s son Marc Mukasey is a partner in the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani (the same Rudolph Giuliani who up until recently was a candidate for the Republican nomination for president). Marc Mukasey is one of the lawyers representing Verizon, one of the telecom firms being sued for cooperating with the government’s surveillance program (see May 12, 2006 and June 26, 2006). Olbermann says of the Mukasey-Giuliani connection: “Now it begins to look like the bureaucrats of the Third Reich trying to protect the Krupp family industrial giants by literally re-writing the laws for their benefit. And we know how that turned out: Alfred Krupp and eleven of his directors were convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg.” [MSNBC, 1/31/2008]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Alfred Krupp, Bracewell & Giuliani, Bush administration (43), Keith Olbermann, Verizon Communications, Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani, Marc Mukasey, Michael Mukasey

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush again demands that Congress reinstate the Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007), with new provisions providing the nation’s telecommunications industry retroactive legal immunity from criminal and civil prosecution for possible crimes committed in the administration’s domestic wiretapping program (see May 12, 2006). Bush says that without such immunity, US telecom firms will be reluctant to help the administration spy on potential terrorists. The PAA is a central part of the legislative update of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (see 1978) which mandates that any wiretaps must receive the approval of the FISA Court. Bush insists that he will veto an update to FISA without the immunity provisions, even as he asserts the country is at risk of further terrorist attacks without the FISA updates, and after letting the PAA lapse without signing an extension of the legislation into law. However, Bush blames Congress for not passing the FISA update with an immunity clause: “Congress’ failure to pass this legislation was irresponsible,” he says. “In other words, the House’s refusal to act is undermining our ability to get cooperation from private companies. And that undermines our efforts to protect us from terrorist attack.” He explains why the Democrats don’t want his bill: “House leaders are blocking this legislation, and the reason can be summed up in three words: class action lawsuits.” A spokesman for Congressional Democrats retorts: “They cannot have it both ways. If it is true that the expiration of the [surveillance law] has caused gaps in intelligence, then it was irresponsible for the president and Congressional Republicans to openly oppose an extension of the law.”
Democrats Put Trial Lawyers Before National Security? - Bush says: “The Senate bill would prevent plaintiffs’ attorneys from suing companies believed to have helped defend America after the 9/11 attacks. More than 40 of these lawsuits have been filed, seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in damages from these companies.… It is unfair and unjust to threaten these companies with financial ruin only because they are believed to have done the right thing and helped their country.” The lawsuits (see June 26, 2006) seek damages based upon violations of FISA, the Wiretap Act, the Communications Act, and the Stored Communications Act, among other laws. Bob Edgar of Common Cause says neither money nor punishment is the issue: “Innocent Americans who have had their rights violated by the telecoms deserve their day in court. If these companies did nothing wrong, then they have nothing to fear.” Bush is apparently attempting to refocus the issue as an attack on trial lawyers—traditionally a group supportive of Democrats—in saying: “Members of the House have a choice to make: They can empower the trial bar—or they can empower the intelligence community. They can help class action trial lawyers sue for billions of dollars—or they can help our intelligence officials protect millions of lives. They can put our national security in the hands of plaintiffs’ lawyers—or they can entrust it to the men and women of our government who work day and night to keep us safe.” House member John Conyers (D-MI) calls such characterizations “irresponsible” and “inaccurate.” [CBS News, 2/23/2008]

Entity Tags: Protect America Act, John Conyers, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Mike McConnell, George W. Bush, Michael Mukasey, Common Cause, Bob Edgar, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Dana Rohrbacher

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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