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Context of 'Before Mid-March, 2007: FBI Unit Probed for Illegal Use of National Security Letters'

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October 26, 2001: USA Patriot Act Becomes Law

President Bush signs the Patriot Act into law.President Bush signs the Patriot Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the USA Patriot Act (see October 2, 2001) into law. The act’s provisions include:
bullet 1) Non-citizens can be detained and deported if they provide “assistance” for lawful activities of any group the government chooses to call a terrorist organization. Under this provision the secretary of state can designate any group that has ever engaged in violent activity as a terrorist organization. Representative Patsy Mink (D-HI) notes that in theory supporters of Greenpeace could now be convicted for supporting terrorism. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/12/2001]
bullet 2) Immigrants can be detained indefinitely, even if they are found not to have any links to terrorism. They can be detained indefinitely for immigration violations or if the attorney general decides their activities pose a danger to national security. They need never be given a trial or even a hearing on their status. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002]
bullet 3) Internet service providers can be ordered to reveal the websites and e-mail addresses that a suspect has communicated to or visited. The FBI need only inform a judge that the information is relevant to an investigation. [Village Voice, 11/26/2001; San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002]
bullet 4) The act “lays the foundation for a domestic intelligence-gathering system of unprecedented scale and technological prowess.” [Washington Post, 11/4/2001] It allows the government to access confidential credit reports, school records, and other records, without consent or notification. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002] All of this information can now be given to the CIA, in violation of the CIA’s mandate prohibiting it from spying within the US. [Village Voice, 11/26/2001]
bullet 5) Financial institutions are encouraged to disclose possible violations of law or “suspicious activities” by any client. The institution is prohibited from notifying the person involved that it made such a report. The term “suspicious” is not defined, so it is up to the financial institutions to determine when to send such a report.
bullet 6) Federal agents can easily obtain warrants to review a library patron’s reading and computer habits (see January 2002). [Village Voice, 2/22/2002] Section 215 allows the FBI to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for an order to obtain documents relating to counterterrorism investigations without meeting the usual standard of legal “probable cause” that a crime may have been committed. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI—see October 9, 2001) says that Section 215 can allow the FBI to “go on a fishing expedition and collect information on virtually anyone.” Librarians will make Section 215 the centerpiece of their objections to the Patriot Act, arguing that the government can now “sweep up vast amounts of information about people who are not suspected of a crime.” In 2005, one librarian will say, “It reminds me of the Red Scare of the 1950s.” However, some FBI officials find it easier to use provisions of Section 505, which expands the usage of so-called “national security letters” (see November 28, 2001). [Roberts, 2008, pp. 39-40]
bullet 7) The government can refuse to reveal how evidence is collected against a suspected terrorist defendant. [Tampa Tribune, 4/6/2003]
Passes with No Public Debate - The law passes without public debate. [Village Voice, 11/9/2001; Village Voice, 11/26/2001] Even though it ultimately took six weeks to pass the law, there were no hearings or congressional debates. [Salon, 3/24/2003] Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) says: “This was the least democratic process for debating questions fundamental to democracy I have ever seen. A bill drafted by a handful of people in secret, subject to no committee process, comes before us immune from amendment” (see October 2-4, 2001 and October 24, 2001). [Village Voice, 11/9/2001] Only 66 congresspeople, and one senator, Feingold, vote against it. Few in Congress are able to read summaries, let alone the fine print, before voting on it. [Los Angeles Times, 10/30/2001] Feingold says, “The new law goes into a lot of areas that have nothing to do with terrorism and have a lot to do with the government and the FBI having a wish list of things they want to do.” [Village Voice, 11/9/2001] Supporters of the act point out that some of its provisions will expire in four years, but in fact most provisions will not expire. [Chicago Tribune, 11/1/2001]
Mounting Opposition - One year later, criticism of the law will grow. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002] Dozens of cities will later pass resolutions criticizing the Patriot Act (see January 12, 2003).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, USA Patriot Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, US Congress, Patsy Mink, Russell D. Feingold, Barney Frank

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The newly adopted USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) allows FBI field offices to issue, without court orders, so-called “national security letters,” or NSLs, that require recipients—telecommunications firms, employers, libraries, anyone—to provide detailed information on their clients, employees, and patrons. The FBI’s Office of General Counsel warns each field office of the potential for abuse inherent in such powerful and relatively unrestricted instruments, writing in part: “NSLs are powerful investigative tools in that they can compel the production of substantial amounts of relevant information. However, they must be used judiciously.… In deciding whether or not to re-authorize the broadened authority, Congress certainly will examine the manner in which the FBI exercised it. Executive Order 12333 and the FCIG [Attorney General Guidelines for FBI Foreign Intelligence Collection and Counterintelligence Investigations] require that the FB[I] accomplish its investigations through the ‘least intrusive’ means. Supervisors should keep this in mind when deciding whether or not a particular use of NSL authority is appropriate. The greater availability of NSLs does not mean that they should be used in every case.” This warning not to overuse NSLs is not always heeded (see February 2005 and Before Mid-March, 2007). [Wired News, 7/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of General Counsel (FBI), USA Patriot Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut receives an e-mail that looks like a terrorist threat. The agents there follow the normal routine: they ask the service provider, a group of Connecticut public libraries, for the real name, street address, and Internet logs of the sender. The agents have no search warrant, grand jury subpoena, or court order. What they do have is a National Security Letter (NSL) that describes the records needed. According to the expanded USA Patriot Act, the NSL is all the FBI needs, and the NSL statute bars the librarians from disclosing the request to anyone. The librarians will refuse to hand over the information, and will file a federal lawsuit challenging the NSL as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech (see July 13, 2005). The e-mailed threat will turn out to be a hoax. Kevin O’Connor, the US attorney in Connecticut, later says the FBI suspected that the threat was a hoax from the outset, but believed they had an “obligation” to pursue it. “We weren’t tying up librarians or reading through books,” he will say. “All we wanted was identifying information. God forbid it isn’t a hoax.” The librarians who challenge the NSL, however, feel differently. George Christian, the point man in the librarians’ legal challenge, will say, “The idea that the government can secretly investigate what the public is informing itself about is chilling.” A judge will strike down the NSL gag order, allowing Christian and his three colleagues (by now dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media) to disclose the fact that they had received an NSL, with a judge calling the NSL gag order “antithetical to democratic concepts”. In April 2006, the government will drop its NSL request (see August 2005-May 2006). Christian will be unmollified. “The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the Fire Department only after a building has burned to the ground,” he will say. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Connecticut Four, American Civil Liberties Union, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Connor, National Security Letters, USA Patriot Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

George Christian.George Christian. [Source: PBS]Librarian and data manager George Christian is served with a so-called “National Security Letter” (NSL) from the FBI demanding that his firm turn over private information on its patrons because of an apparent terrorist threat e-mailed from one of his libraries (see February 2005). Christian is the executive director of Library Connection, Inc., which manages catalog information, patron records, and circulation information for 27 libraries in and around Hartford, Connecticut, as well as providing telecommunications services to many of its member libraries. Christian is given the NSL, as well as a gag order preventing them from ever mentioning their receipt of the letter, or any details surrounding it. Christian is notified of the letter five days before actually receiving it; he spends those days frantically learning more about NSLs and the laws surrounding them (see October 25, 2005). He learns that a district court in New York had found the entire NSL statute unconstitutional because of what Christian calls “prima facie violations of the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments.” By the time they receive the letter, he has decided to oppose it. The letter, delivered by two FBI agents, orders Christian and Library Connection to turn over information about a specific IP address registered to the firm. One of the agents warns Christian that the gag order prohibits anyone in the firm from telling anyone that the FBI is attempting to secure information from its library business records. Christian, who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the NSL in April 2007 (see April 11, 2007), says neither he nor his colleagues could “fathom any ‘exigent’ nature for the FBI request.” The letter was dated May 19, nearly two months before its delivery, was not addressed to Christian, and requested information from the use of the IP address five months earlier, February 15. Christian later says that while he and his colleagues want to assist the FBI in any way they can, and have no desire to “impede the investigation of a perilous situation that endanger[s] my country or my fellow citizens,” because of the date of the letter and the IP usage, they conclude that the FBI has not been in any rush to get the information. Christian tells the FBI agents that he believes the use of NSLs is unconstitutional and that he will consult his attorney. Library Connection’s attorney says that the only way to contest compliance with an NSL is to take the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, to court. Christian is understandably reluctant to involve his firm in such a court challenge without authorization, and takes the case to the Executive Committee of the firm’s board of directors. The three members, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek (who will soon be dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media), after conferring with the attorney and reviewing the New York court’s decision against NSLs, decide to go forward with the complaint. They secure representation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Together, they decide to ask for relief from the NSL, to seek a broader ruling that the use of NSLs is unconstitutional, and to have the gag order lifted so they can publicly discuss the incident as “part of the national debate over renewal of the Patriot Act” (see March 9, 2006). Christian will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee, “We… felt we were defending our democracy by insisting that the checks and balances established in the Constitution be observed. We had no court order, and there was no evidence that an independent judge had examined the FBI’s evidence and found there to be probable cause justifying their request for information.… [W]e did not want to aid terrorists or criminals.… But we did not feel we would be helping the country or making anyone safer by throwing out the Constitution either.” Because of the way the computer system is set up, to give the FBI the information about the specific IP address and usage it required, Christian would have to give the FBI information about everyone using every computer in the particular library on the day in question. He later says, “[S]ince there was no way of determining who was using the computers in the library five months after the fact, we felt that [the FBI wanted] information we had on all the patrons of that library. That seemed like a rather sweeping request. Some would call it a fishing expedition.” The case goes to trial in August 2005 (see August 2005-May 2006). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] It is later learned that the original e-mailed threat is a hoax. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Peter Chase, National Security Letters, Senate Judiciary Committee, Library Connection, Inc., Barbara Bailey, George Christian, American Civil Liberties Union, Janet Nocek, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Connecticut Four

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey.The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey. [Source: Robert Deutsch/ USA Today]A case filed against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by four plaintiffs from Connecticut’s Library Connection, Inc.—George Christian, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek—goes to trial in federal district court (see July 13, 2005). The trial is filed as Doe v. Gonzales because the government has filed a gag order against the plaintiffs forbidding them from identifying themselves or discussing the case publicly. The case involves a demand for information from the FBI for information concerning library usage by patrons of a Connecticut library; the four plaintiffs, on behalf of their data management firm Library Connection, have refused. The case revolves around the use of a National Security Letter (NSL) by the FBI; the plaintiffs, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, want the NSL voided, the gag order lifted, and such use of NSLs found unconstitutional. Christian and his three colleagues are not allowed to attend the hearings in person because of the possibility that they might be identified as the plaintiffs; they are forced to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit broadcast from a locked room in the Hartford courthouse. When the judge in the proceeding asks to review the government’s evidence for keeping the gag rule in place, Justice Department lawyers insist on submitting secret evidence directly to the judge, without providing that evidence to the plaintiff’s lawyers. The judge is not pleased, and rules, as did her predecessor in New York, that a perpetual gag order amounts to prior restraint, and thereby is unconstitutional. She adds that her review of the secret evidence gives no national security rationale for keeping the plaintiffs gagged. The Justice Department immediately appeals the ruling, and the plaintiffs stay silent and gagged. While the four plaintiffs remain silent about the NSL and the court case, the Justice Department’s primary lawyer, Kevin O’Conner, does not: O’Conner has frequently debated one of the plaintiffs, Chase, about the Patriot Act, and though Chase is now required to remain silent, O’Conner continues to make frequent public appearances touting the Patriot Act. Christian later says, in 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (see April 11, 2007), that the continuing gag order causes the four “John Does” considerable professional and personal distress, especially after the national media begins reporting the story. The media eventually learns, through the careless redaction of information by government lawyers, of Chase’s identity as one of the four plaintiffs, and reveals that Library Connection is the firm involved in the lawsuit. Christian’s name comes to light shortly thereafter. The attorneys warn Christian and the others that even though their identities and their firm have been revealed, they still cannot comment at all on the case. Christian, for one, wants to testify before Congress in regards to the upcoming reauthorization of the Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006), but cannot. The four plaintiffs quickly become known in the media as the “Connecticut John Does” or the “Connecticut Four.”
Appeals Court - In November 2005, a New York court of appeals hears the case. Christian and his colleagues are allowed to be present at the case this time, but are required to conceal their identities by entering and leaving the court building separately, are not allowed to sit together, and are not allowed to confer with, or even make eye contact with, each other or their attorneys. The Justice Department lawyers argue that even revealing themselves as recipients of a NSL would violate national security, an argument refuted by submission of the raft of news articles identifying Christian, Chase, and Library Connection. The government argues that those news reports don’t matter because no one in Connecticut reads the primary newspaper carrying the story, the New York Times, and that surveys prove that most people don’t believe what they read in the news anyway. The Justice Department also tries to get the news articles to be kept under seal in court papers. Christian characterizes the entire proceeding as “absurd.” The court refuses to admit the plaintiff’s claim that 48 states, including Connecticut, have laws protecting the privacy of library patrons, but does admit into evidence the claims by Gonzales that there is no statutory justification for claims of privacy. In an attempt to get the gag order lifted before the Patriot Act reauthorization, the plaintiff’s attorneys make an emergency appeal directly to the Supreme Court, but are rebuffed. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] In June 2006, Nocek tells a reporter, “Imagine the government came to you with an order demanding that you compromise your professional and personal principles. Imagine then being permanently gagged from speaking to your friends, your family or your colleagues about this wrenching experience.… Under the Patriot Act, the FBI demanded Internet and library records without showing any evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing to a court of law. We were barred from speaking to anyone about the matter and we were even taking a risk by consulting with lawyers.” [Interview: George Christian, 6/2/2006]
Gag Order Lifted, Case Dropped - Weeks after President Bush signs into law the Patriot Act reauthorization (see March 9, 2006), the FBI voluntarily lifts the gag order without waiting for a court order. The agency then tries to get the original ruling against the gag order vacated, an attempt that the appeals court refuses. The appellate judges are clearly disturbed by the breadth of the NSL gag provisions; one appellate judge writes, “A ban on speech and a shroud of secrecy in perpetuity are antithetical to democratic concepts and do not fit comfortably with the fundamental rights guaranteed American citizens… Unending secrecy of actions taken by government officials may also serve as a cover for possible official misconduct and/or incompetence.” The appeals court refers the case back to district court, allowing the original opinion to stand. Weeks later, the FBI withdraws its NSL, saying that it no longer needs the information it originally requested. Christian later testifies, “In doing so, they removed the Patriot Act from the danger of court review.” Christian later says that he believes the entire procedure was managed as an attempt to prevent the case from becoming public knowledge before Congress could vote on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]

Entity Tags: Peter Chase, Senate Judiciary Committee, National Security Letters, US Department of Justice, Library Connection, Inc., George Christian, George W. Bush, American Civil Liberties Union, Barbara Bailey, Connecticut Four, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Conner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A report by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, finds that the FBI used self-issued subpoenas known as National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain phone, e-mail, and financial information on at least 143,074 targets between 2003 and 2005. The report’s main conclusions include:
bullet More than half of those targeted are US citizens;
bullet In many cases FBI officials evaded limits on NSLs and sometimes illegally issued them;
bullet 60% of the audited NSLs do not follow the FBI’s rules of issuance, and a further 22% contain unreported possible violations of the law, including improper requests and unauthorized collections of information;
bullet The number of surveillance targets is probably far higher than the audit finds, because the FBI practices poor record-keeping that allow at least 22% of surveillance to go unreported;
bullet Fine finds that agents had routinely issued the letters even when they had no open investigation, as required by law;
bullet One office made arrangements with telecommunications firms to get information instantly, even before issuing NSLs, by sending “exigent letters” claiming it needed the requested information because of an emergency, and that the letters and necessary court warrants were in preparation (see Before Mid-March, 2007). But, the audit finds, “we could not confirm one instance in which a subpoena had been submitted to any US attorney’s office before the exigent letter was sent to the phone companies” and that “many were not issued in exigent circumstances.”
Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants hearings. “The Inspector General’s report is a scathing critique of FBI misuse of the secretive process,” Markey says. Although the FBI has used NSLs for years, their usage soared after the USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) eased the restrictions on them. Now, FBI agents in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations can issue NSLs themselves, without court warrants or even the approval of a supervisor, as long as the agent affirms that the information they seek is “relevant” to an open investigation. The information obtained by NSLs remains in a massive “data warehouse,” where it can be accessed again for data-mining or subsequent investigations. [Wired News, 3/9/2007]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Edward Markey, USA Patriot Act, Glenn Fine, US Department of Justice, House Homeland Security Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

FBI director Robert Mueller orders a criminal probe into FBI officials who used misleading “exigent letters”—letters used in lieu of National Security Letters (NSLs) that demand information on an emergency basis—to acquire thousands of US citizens’ phone records. Mueller tells civil liberties groups of the probe, which focuses on the activities of the Communications Analysis Unit (CAU). The probe could result in criminal prosecutions for misuse of Patriot Act investigative tools. NSLs are powerful subpoenas that can be issued by FBI supervisors without court supervisions, and have played central roles in previous allegations of misuse (see February 2005). The probe is investigating incidents where CAU officials wrote “exigent letters” to telecommunications firms requesting immediate wiretaps and promising that court warrants would be forthcoming—but the warrants had never been applied for and were never issued. Some FBI employees have already been granted immunity in return for their testimony. NSLs are routinely used to provide investigators in terrorism and espionage cases with data from phone companies, banks, credit reporting agencies, and Internet service providers on any US citizens considered “relevant” to an ongoing investigation. This information is then stored in three separate computer systems, including a shared data-mining system called the Investigative Data Warehouse. Though warned in 2001 to use this power with restraint, FBI agents have so far issued over 47,000 NSLs, more than half of those targeting Americans. In the case of the CAU, a support bureau which analyzes suspected terrorist communications and provides intelligence to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, its officials cannot issue subpoenas, but must have counterterrorism investigators do so. But the CAU has issued at least 739 “exigent letters” to AT&T, Verizon, and MCI seeking information on over 3,000 phone numbers; some of the individual letters contained requests for over 100 numbers. The letters read in part, “Due to exigent circumstances, it is requested that records for the attached list of telephone numbers be provided. Subpoenas requesting this information have been submitted to the US Attorney’s Office who will process and serve them formally to [telecom firm] as expeditiously as possible.” [Wired News, 7/12/2007] (Reporter Ryan Singel notes, The most striking thing about these exigent letters… is that they all use the same pathetic, passive bureaucratese.”) [Wired News, 7/10/2007] No such subpoena requests had been filed with the particular US attorneys, and only some of the requests were later followed up with proper legal processes. CAU chief Bassem Youssef says he ended the problem after he took over the unit in 2005, and says his attempts to provide post-facto legal processes were often hampered by uncooperative field offices. Youssef is suing the FBI over his complaints that the bureau was wasting his Arabic-language skills and antiterrorism experience and the bureau’s alleged retaliation. [Wired News, 7/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Verizon Communications, USA Patriot Act, Ryan Singel, Robert S. Mueller III, Bassem Youssef, Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), AT&T, MCI, Investigative Data Warehouse, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Wired News reporter Ryan Singel examines the documents released as part of the FBI’s probe into the possibly illegal use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by its agents (see Before Mid-March, 2007). Singel finds that all of the letters originate from the same room in the FBI’s Washington headquarters, Room 4944. Almost all of them refer to a “Special Project,” and the only name on any of the letters is Larry Mefford. At the time the letters were written, Mefford was the Executive Assistant Director in charge of the Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division. His job primarily focused on preventing domestic terror attacks. Having Mefford’s name on the letters adds another layer of interest, Singel writes: “… Mefford’s name is on documents that requested personal information on Americans. Some of those requests included information known to be false to the agents signing them. That’s a federal crime, according to one former FBI agent.” It is unclear what the “Special Project” is, outside of its existence within the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit (CAU), which issued the NSLs in question. Why some of the NSLs requested over two pages of phone numbers as part of a single request is also unclear. Singel observes, “The documents also show that these ‘exigent letters’—essentially end runs around the rules set up to keep the FBI from trampling on citizens rights—weren’t devised by some rogue Jack Bauer-style agent [a reference to the popular TV action drama 24.]. The form letters originated from inside FBI Headquarters and in some cases, bear the name of a senior level FBI official who should have been aware of the letters’ legal grey status and possibility for abuse.” [Wired News, 7/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division (FBI), Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Larry Mefford, Ryan Singel

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Newly released CIA documents show that the agency uses “national security letters” (NSLs) to secure financial and other information about US citizens from employers, financial institutions, libraries, and other private and public firms (see January 2004). The documents were requested by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI has used NSLs for years, and drawn heavy criticism for its use of the instruments (see February 2005), but until now, the CIA’s use of NSLs has been a closely guarded secret. Like the FBI NSLs, the CIA’s letters come with “gag orders” that force the recipients to remain silent about the demand for information, or that there was even such a demand. According to ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman, often the recipient of an NSL cannot keep a copy of the letter or even take notes about the information turned over to the CIA. A CIA spokesman denies that its use of NSLs was ever kept secret, and the information has always been requested on a voluntary basis for “such legitimate purposes as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2008]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, American Civil Liberties Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Freedom of Information Act, Melissa Goodman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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