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A lieutenant general meets with Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio and Dean Wandry, who heads Qwest’s government business unit. According to documents filed in 2006 by Nacchio concerning his trial on insider trading charges (see October 12, 2007), the general “told Mr. Wandry that he ran the largest telecom operation in the world, he had looked at Qwest’s network, and he wanted to use it for government purposes.” The general in question could be NSA Director Kenneth Minihan, who will be replaced in 1999 by another lieutenant general, Michael Hayden, but neither Minihan nor Hayden will comment on the allegation. Many former intelligence officials will say that it is likely Minihan who met with Nacchio and Wandry. Nacchio’s court documents indicate that he and Wandry agree to work with the general. Nacchio is not allowed to announce the contract publicly, but according to the court documents, he “understood at the time this was the beginning of a relationship which had enormous potential for future work. This proves increasingly true as time went on.” By 1999 Qwest is working extensively with the NSA. Minihan is particularly concerned about the potential of “cyberwarfare” by foreign governments, terrorist organizations, drug cartels, and organized crime, a prospect which he felt the NSA is unprepared. He particularly worries about Russia and China; in June 1998, he will testify are training personnel in potential cyber-attacks. “These opportunists, enabled by the explosion of technology and the availability of inexpensive, secure means of communication, pose a significant threat to the interests of the United States and its allies,” Minihan will state. In 2007, a former senior NSA official will say that the agency felt those groups knew US privacy laws all too well and were capable of using those laws against the NSA and other intelligence agencies. He will say, “There was such a nuanced understanding of how to tie us in knots and use American law against us, that there were certainly pockets of people saying, ‘We’ve got to be assertive; we’ve got to be more aggressive on this.’” Hayden, Minihan’s successor, will be particularly willing to push agency operations to the edge of legality. After 9/11, Hayden will say, “We’re pretty aggressive within the law. As a professional, I’m troubled if I’m not using the full authority allowed by law.” (Harris 11/2/2007) The NSA will approach Qwest will a similar offer in the months before 9/11 (see February 2001).
The NSA asks Qwest, a major US telecommunications firm and a cutting-edge provider of high-tech wireless and Internet connectivity, to reveal information about its customers and their phone calls. Qwest’s CEO, Joe Nacchio, refuses after meeting with NSA officials and deciding that the program is illegal without court orders (see February 27, 2001). The NSA refuses to seek court authorization for its wiretaps and electronic surveillance. The NSA will renew its request from Qwest after the 9/11 attacks, and will also ask the firm to help it track suspected terrorists. Other telecommunications firms such as Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth, will comply with the NSA’s requests (see February 2001 and Beyond).
Fears of a 'Digital Pearl Harbor' - According to a former White House official, the NSA’s primary purpose before 9/11 is to watch for computer hackers and foreign-government agents trying to hack into the government’s computer information systems, particularly those within the Defense Department. Government officials fear a “digital Pearl Harbor” if hackers were ever to seize control of those systems or other key US infrastructures. The former official will say in 2007 that the NSA’s proposal to Qwest is, “Can you build a private version of Echelon and tell us what you see?” Echelon is the NSA’s enormous signals intelligence (SIGINT) network used by the agency and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain. Qwest is constructing a high-speed network for phone and Internet traffic, and the NSA wants Qwest to keep records of its customers’ transactions for it. The NSA, another source will say, wants to analyze call, e-mail, and other transmissions’ traffic patters for signs of suspicious activity. The White House official will say that telecom firms such as Qwest “have an enormous amount of intelligence-gathering” capability. They don’t have to target individual customers to “look for wacky behavior,” or “groups communicating with each other in strange patterns.” Such information could augment intelligence that the NSA and other agencies were gathering from other sources, and enable the NSA to collect the information it wants without violating laws prohibiting it and other intelligence agencies from directly gathering data on US citizens.
Ill Will from NSA - Nacchio’s refusal to go along with the NSA’s request garners it some ill will among the US intelligence community, the former White House official will say. Nacchio will contend that because of his refusal, the NSA denied Qwest a lucrative government contract. A former high-level intelligence official will add that other telecom companies had little problem agreeing to the NSA’s requests. Nacchio believes that the NSA’s request is illegal under the Telecommunications Act without court orders; the former White House official will acknowledge that it might violate the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. After 9/11, that law will be amended by the USA Patriot Act to give the government more room to monitor US citizens.
Qwest, Other Telecom Firms Cooperative with Other Agencies - Qwest is apparently less reluctant to share other information with the Pentagon. Qwest began sharing its technology and information as far back as 1997 (see 1997). In May 2001, Commerce Secretary Don Evans will tell the Senate Appropriations Committee that his department helped persuade Qwest to “share proprietory information with the Defense Department to evaluate the vulnerability of its network.” Qwest, which serves the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions of the country, covers the areas that house some of the military’s most important command-and-control facilities, including the US Strategic Command. In the 1990s, Qwest began actively pursuing contracts with the Defense Department to build more modern, private, secure networks for defense and intelligence agencies. (Harris 11/2/2007)
Meetings with Bush Officials - In court documents filed in 2006 to challenge his prosecution for insider trading and, in heavily redacted form, released to the public in 2007, Nacchio will indicate that telecom executives met frequently with Bush administration officials before 9/11, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, NSA Director Michael Hayden, and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. Many telecom firms are working closely with the government to develop highly classified operations, including joint networks to which the government will have unfettered access. The future director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, works with telecom firms to expand the cooperation between the telecom industry and the federal government. (Greenwald 10/15/2007)
According to a 2006 lawsuit against three major US telecommunications firms that alleges the companies illegally cooperated with the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program (see May 12, 2006), NSA officials meet with AT&T officials to discuss that firm’s participation. (Days later, NSA officials will also meet with officials from Qwest, who refuse to cooperate—see February 27, 2001). The officials discuss replicating an AT&T network center in Bedminster, New Jersey, to give the agency access to all the global phone and e-mail traffic that runs through it. According to an AT&T engineer’s court statements, the NSA officials want to “listen in” with unfettered access to communications that they believe may have intelligence value, as well as the ability to store those communications for later review. There is no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications, the engineer says: “At some point, I started feeling something isn’t right.” Two other AT&T employees will contradict the engineer’s claims, saying that the NSA merely wanted to upgrade its own internal communications. The lawsuit’s legal counsel, Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, will say that internal AT&T documents can verify the engineer’s account. Mayer will say that the engineer sees “decisive evidence that within two weeks of taking office, the Bush administration was planning a comprehensive effort of spying on Americans’ phone usage.” (Lichtblau, Risen, and Shane 12/16/2007)
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. (Cauley 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. (Lichtblau, Risen, and Shane 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. (Cauley 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.” (Drinkard 5/16/2006)
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. (Juliano 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.” (Harris 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. (Lichtblau, Risen, and Shane 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).
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). (Cauley 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).
Senior AT&T technician Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009), working near the National Security Agency (NSA)‘s “secret room” in the firm’s Folsom Street, San Francisco facility (see October 2003), receives two documents pertaining to the equipment in that secret room. (In a 2007 interview with PBS, Klein will cite a third document as well, that he found lying on top of a router.) The two documents are entitled “SIMS Splitter Cut-In and Test Procedure Issue 2, 01/12/03” and “SIMS Splitter Cut-In and Test Procedure OSWF Training Issue 2 January 24, 2002.” “OSWF” stands for “On-Site Work Force.” As for “SIMS,” all Klein knows is that it is an acronym associated with the secret room. Reading over the documents, Klein realizes that they indicate the secret room contains a “splitter cabinet,” installed in February 2003 (see February 2003), containing “optical splitters” that “cut in” to signals sent through 16 “Peering Links” between AT&T and 16 other major carriers and Internet exchange points. He later recalls: “I brought them back to my desk, and when I started looking at it, I looked at it more, and I looked at it more, and finally it dawned on me sort of all at once, and I almost fell out of my chair, because this showed, first of all, what they had done, that they had taken working circuits, which had nothing to do with a splitter cabinet, and they had taken in particular what are called peering links which connect AT&T’s network with the other networks. It’s how you get the Internet, right? One network connects with another. So they took 16 high-speed peering links which go to places like Qwest [Communications] and Palo Alto Internet Exchange and places like that.… These circuits were working at one point, and the documents indicated in February 2003 they had cut into these circuits so that they could insert the splitter so that they can get the data flow from these circuits to go to the secret room. So this data flow meant that they were getting not only AT&T customers’ data flow; they were getting everybody else’s data flow, whoever else might happen to be communicating into the AT&T network from other networks. So it was turning out to be like a large chunk of the network, of the Internet.” The documents, he later says, name “the circuit IDs… the companies they belong to… [and] the cut date. And they were all in February , when they were cut into the splitter” (see February 2003). The 16 carriers include ConXion, Verio, XO, Genuity, Qwest, PAIX (Palo Alto Internet Exchange), Allegiance, Abovenet, Global Crossing, C&W, UUNET, Level 3, Sprint, Telia, PSINet, and MAE West (the Metropolitan Area Exchange for AT&T’s Western region). In plain English, the splitter in the NSA room is duplicating the electronic data being sent through AT&T’s equipment, and sending the duplicated signals somewhere else, presumably to NSA computers for later processing. Klein is given the documents by a veteran AT&T technician who is preparing to retire. Klein, in a casual conversation with the colleague who gave him the documents, remarks, “It seems obvious to me, given that the secret room is next to the 4ESS (see January 2003), that they’re listening to phone calls.” Klein’s colleague shakes his head and says: “No, Internet.… I’ll show you.” (In 2007 Klein will learn from a telecommunications expert that since AT&T was transferring its long-distance telephone traffic onto Internet fiber cables, the splitter was most likely picking up both telephone and Internet traffic.) Klein’s colleague shows him the cabinet containing the splitters. Klein later tells a reporter: “[T]here were optical splitters, which basically were connected by fiber-optic cable down to the secret room on the sixth floor.… The analogy I can give you, which most people are familiar with is, say you get cable TV in your living room and then want to watch all the channels you get in the living room, you want to get all those same channels in your bedroom. So they install on the cable what they call a splitter, which splits off all the signals, duplicates of the same signals which go to the bedroom.… What the splitter does is make a duplicate copy of all the signals going across the fiber-optic cables.… We’re talking about billions and billions of bits of data going across every second, right? And it’s going into the router, and it’s coming back from the routers in that office. So what they do with the splitter is they intercept that data stream and make copies of all the data, and those copies go down on the cable to the secret room.” Klein confirms from his colleague and from the documents that show the splitters are connected directly to the equipment in the secret room. (PBS Frontline 5/15/2007; Klein 2009, pp. 34-35)
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). (Cauley 5/11/2006)
Former NSA Director Michael Hayden, testifying as part of his nomination hearings to head the CIA, denies that the NSA has engaged in illegal surveillance operations against US citizens, after allegations by former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio that he met with NSA officials well before the 9/11 attacks and discussed such a surveillance program. Nacchio refused to cooperate with the NSA, and he says that his telecommunications firm suffered retaliation as a result of his refusal (see February 27, 2001). Other telecom firms such as BellSouth, AT&T, and Verizon did cooperate (see February 2001 and Beyond). Court documents show that Nacchio balked at cooperating with the NSA after learning that the agency wanted Qwest’s phone records of the firm’s customers, but had no warrants or approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees all US intelligence agencies’ surveillance operations.
Denial - Hayden denies that the NSA has broken the law, and that it has complied with its oversight responsibilities. “Everything that the agency has done has been lawful,” he says. “It’s been briefed to the appropriate members of Congress. The only purpose of the agency’s activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people. And I think we’ve done that.” Nacchio says the NSA continued to make similar requests of Qwest until he left the firm in June 2002. The court documents are part of Nacchio’s trial on numerous counts of insider trading.
Political Reaction - The White House and Senate Republicans are generally supportive of Hayden while Senate Democrats have mixed feelings. One who questions Hayden’s credibility is Ron Wyden (D-OR) of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who says, “The American people have got to know that when the person who heads the CIA makes a statement that they are getting the full picture.” In contrast, Kit Bond (R-MO), a member of the select panel allowed access to classified information on the warrantless surveillance program, says, “The president’s program uses information collected from phone companies,” but only the telephone number called and the caller’s number. Conversations, says Bond, are not recorded. President Bush says that the NSA wiretapping program is not “mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”
Scope of Program - A senior government official given permission to speak anonymously about the program says that while the NSA has access to records of almost all domestic phone calls, the records are used solely to trace regular contacts of “known bad guys.” The NSA needs access to the entirety of citizens’ phone communications, the official says, but it isn’t “interested in the vast majority of them.” (Associated Press 5/12/2006; O'Neil and Lichtblau 5/12/2006; CBS News 5/12/2006)
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; Reardon 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.’” (Roychoudhuri 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)
Former NSA analyst Ira Winkler, author of the 2005 book Spies Among Us, writes of his disgust with the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, saying that because it is warrantless, it is illegal. He argues the program violates both the NSA’s rules of engagement and its long-term missions.
Warrantless Surveillance is Illegal - Securing warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is easily done, Winkler says: “FISA blocks no legitimate acquisition of knowledge. It doesn’t even slow the process down.” The problem, Winkler says, is that the program is so large that securing FISA warrants for every communication the NSA monitors “would [take] an army of lawyers to get all the warrants they’d need to be in compliance with FISA.” However: “[T]he law is the law. No president has the right to pick and choose which laws they find convenient to follow.” President Bush could have asked Congress to amend the FISA laws: “After all, after 9/11 Congress passed a wide variety of laws (without, for the most part, reading them) that were supposed to prevent another attack. They could have easily slipped something modifying FISA into all of that legislation. They did not, though recent revelations about this administration’s use of signing statements may indicate that they simply didn’t want to raise the possibility of questions.” Merely ignoring FISA “is illegal,” Winkler writes.
Weakens National Security - Another issue is national security. Not obtaining warrants actually weakens natural security, he argues, “since the process of obtaining the warrants has an effect on quality control.” For example: “To date, FBI agents have been sent out to do thousands of investigations based on this warrantless wiretapping. None of those investigations turned up a legitimate lead. I have spoken to about a dozen agents, and they all roll their eyes and indicate disgust with the man-years of wasted effort being put into physically examining NSA ‘leads.’ This scattershot attempt at data mining drags FBI agents away from real investigations, while destroying the NSA’s credibility in the eyes of law enforcement and the public in general. That loss of credibility makes the NSA the agency that cried wolf—and after so many false leads, should they provide something useful, the data will be looked at skeptically and perhaps given lower priority by law enforcement than it would otherwise have been given.” Winkler says the NSA’s claim that it does not retain any personal information is ludicrous. “Frankly, you have to be a complete moron to believe that,” he writes. “It is trivial to narrow down access to a phone number to just a few members of a household, if not in fact to exactly one person.”
Extortion - And the warrantless surveillance is not the only illegal action taken by the government. If the government did threaten one telecom firm, Qwest, for not cooperating (see February 2001), “[t]hat’s extortion—another crime.” Winkler writes that both Congress and the American people must demand answers, or the White House and the NSA will continue to usurp our freedom under the cloak of protecting freedoms.
Arguments For Program are Specious - Winkler says the arguments for the program that he hears are groundless. He hears three main threads:
“I have nothing to worry about so I don’t care if they investigate me.” Winkler points out that plenty of people have been investigated and incarcerated in the US and abroad without doing anything wrong: “I believe that Saddam Hussein would cheerfully agree with the tired allegation that if you did nothing wrong, you shouldn’t mind the government looking at your calls. I think Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and the Chinese government would also agree with that line of thought. Is this the company we consent to keep in the name of safety?”
“[W]e need to do everything we can to protect ourselves.” Protecting ourselves, Winkler argues, means letting law enforcement work to protect US citizens against real, ongoing crimes. The government is “watching for dragons while very real snakes multiply freely in our midst.”
“[T]he NSA isn’t listening to the content of the calls, so there’s no harm.” Aside from the fact that Winkler believes the NSA is lying about not listening to the calls themselves, he says: “[The NSA] doesn’t need to hear your chatter to invade your privacy. By simply tying numbers together—an intelligence discipline of traffic analysis—I assure you I can put together a portrait of your life. I’ll know your friends, your hobbies, where your children go to school, if you’re having an affair, whether you plan to take a trip and even when you’re awake or asleep. Give me a list of whom you’re calling and I can tell most of the critical things I need to know about you.” The NSA is made up of mostly “good and honest people,” but it has “more than its share of bitter, vindictive mid- and senior-level bureaucrats. I would not trust my personal information with these people, since I have personally seen them use internal information against their enemies.” Winkler reminds his readers that the Bush administration deliberately outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson because her husband dared debunk an administration claim about Iraq (see November 20, 2007), and tried to undermine the credibility of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke when he spoke out against the administration (see March 24, 2004). The NSA could easily provide the administration with damaging information about other administration enemies.
'Against Everything I Was Taught' - “NSA domestic spying is against everything I was ever taught working at the NSA,” Winkler writes. “I might be more for it if there was any credible evidence that this somehow provides useful information that couldn’t otherwise be had. However, the domestic spying program has gotten so massive that the well-established process of getting a warrant cannot be followed—and quantity most certainly doesn’t translate to quality. Quite the opposite.” The terrorists number in the hundreds, Winkler writes, but “the NSA is collecting data on hundreds of millions of people who are clearly not the enemy. These numbers speak for themselves.” (Winkler 5/16/2006)
Former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio, who refused to accede to Bush administration demands that he participate in the warrantless wiretapping of US citizens (see February 2001 and Beyond), says in court documents released today that the NSA retaliated against Qwest by withdrawing a large government contract from the firm. Nacchio was convicted on 19 counts of insider trading, and was unable to mount the defense he wanted because the information he tried to present to the court was classified. He is appealing the verdict. The documents released today make up part of that defense. The documents indicate that the NSA was discussing a secret and possibly illegal surveillance operation against Americans as far back as February 2001—months before the 9/11 attacks, which Bush officials have used to justify wiretapping Americans without court warrants. Although the legal filings are heavily redacted for public consumption, they reveal, among other things, a February 27, 2001 meeting between Nacchio and NSA officials to discuss an infrastructure project and another, classified topic that may be regarding the NSA’s illegal wiretapping of US citizens (see February 27, 2001). After the discussion, in which Nacchio refuses to participate in the operation, the NSA withdrew its “Groundbreaker” contract from consideration for Qwest. Nacchio and an associate “went into that meeting expecting to talk about the ‘Groundbreaker’ project and came out of the meeting with optimism about the prospect for 2001 revenues from NSA,” Stern writes, “[T]he Court has prohibited Mr. Nacchio from eliciting testimony regarding what also occurred at that meeting, [redacted].… The Court has also refused to allow Mr. Nacchio to demonstrate that the agency retaliated for this refusal by denying the Groundbreaker and perhaps other work to Qwest.” Nacchio was convicted for not warning investors that Qwest’s stock would drop before he sold off his own stock; Nacchio contends that he believed the secret NSA contracts would come through and bolster his former firm’s stock price. (Juliano 10/12/2007; Marketwatch 10/13/2007)
Qwest's No-Bid Contracts - On May 25, 2007, Judge Edward Nottingham wrote that, according to Nacchio, “Qwest entered into two classified contracts valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, without a competitive bidding process and that in 2000 and 2001, he participated in discussion with high-ranking [redacted] representatives concerning the possibility of awarding additional contracts of a similar nature.… Those discussions led him to believe that [redacted] would award Qwest contracts valued at amounts that would more than offset the negative warnings he was receiving about Qwest’s financial prospects.” (Nakashima and Eggen 10/13/2007)
'Quid Pro Quo' - The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Hugh D’Andrade writes, “It appears that the NSA’s requests for cooperation came with an implied quid pro quo—give us your customer’s calling records and we will reward you with generous contracts worth millions. It is beginning to look like the telecoms were motivated by something other than ‘patriotism’ after all.” (DAndrade 10/17/2007)
'Never-Ending Carousel' - And Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, himself a former Constitutional law and civil rights litigator, writes, “The cooperation between the various military/intelligence branches of the federal government—particularly the Pentagon and the NSA—and the private telecommunications corporations is extraordinary and endless. They really are, in every respect, virtually indistinguishable. The federal government has its hands dug deeply into the entire ostensibly ‘private’ telecommunications infrastructure and, in return, the nation’s telecoms are recipients of enormous amounts of revenues by virtue of turning themselves into branches of the federal government. There simply is no separation between these corporations and the military and intelligence agencies of the federal government. They meet and plan and agree so frequently, and at such high levels, that they practically form a consortium.” Greenwald calls it “a never-ending carousel of multi-billion dollar transactions—pursuant to which enormous sums of taxpayer money are transferred to these telecoms in exchange for the telecoms serving as obedient divisions of the government, giving them unfettered access to all of the data and content of the communications of American citizens.” (Greenwald 10/15/2007)
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