Choose style:
Subscription Options:

One-time Donations:

Author Topic: Big Brother update  (Read 842 times)


Big Brother update
« on: May 11, 2006, 11:24:am »
The National Security Agency has been secretly  collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans,  using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with  direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.  

The NSA program reaches into homes and  businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of  ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This  program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording  conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling  patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in  separate interviews.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: The NSA record collection program


"It's the largest database ever assembled in the  world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about  the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation.  The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made"  within the nation's borders, this person added.


For the customers of these companies, it means  that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across  town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business  contacts and others.


The three telecommunications companies are  working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001  shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the sources said. The  program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists, they  said.


The sources would talk only under a guarantee of anonymity because the NSA program is secret.


Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated Monday  by President Bush to become the director of the CIA, headed the NSA  from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, Hayden would have overseen  the agency's domestic call-tracking program. Hayden declined to comment  about the program.


The NSA's domestic program, as described by  sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has  acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to  eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international  e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one  party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been  used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.


In defending the previously disclosed program,  Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international  calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication  must be outside the United States."


As a result, domestic call records — those of  calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed  to be private.


Sources, however, say that is not the case. With  access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a  secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans.  Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are  not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources  said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be  cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.


Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA,  declined to discuss the agency's operations. "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," he  said. "However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal  responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."


The White House would not discuss the domestic  call-tracking program. "There is no domestic surveillance without court  approval," said Dana Perino, deputy press secretary, referring to  actual eavesdropping.


She added that all national intelligence  activities undertaken by the federal government "are lawful, necessary  and required for the pursuit of al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists."  All government-sponsored intelligence activities "are carefully  reviewed and monitored," Perino said. She also noted that "all  appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on the intelligence  efforts of the United States."


The government is collecting "external" data on  domestic phone calls but is not intercepting "internals," a term for  the actual content of the communication, according to a U.S.  intelligence official familiar with the program. This kind of data  collection from phone companies is not uncommon; it's been done before,  though never on this large a scale, the official said. The data are  used for "social network analysis," the official said, meaning to study  how terrorist networks contact each other and how they are tied  together.


Carriers uniquely positioned


AT&T recently merged with SBC and kept the  AT&T name. Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T are the nation's three  biggest telecommunications companies; they provide local and wireless  phone service to more than 200 million customers.


The three carriers control vast networks with  the latest communications technologies. They provide an array of  services: local and long-distance calling, wireless and high-speed  broadband, including video. Their direct access to millions of homes  and businesses has them uniquely positioned to help the government keep  tabs on the calling habits of Americans.


Among the big telecommunications companies, only  Qwest has refused to help the NSA, the sources said. According to  multiple sources, Qwest declined to participate because it was uneasy  about the legal implications of handing over customer information to  the government without warrants.


Qwest's refusal to participate has left the NSA  with a hole in its database. Based in Denver, Qwest provides local  phone service to 14 million customers in 14 states in the West and  Northwest. But AT&T and Verizon also provide some services —  primarily long-distance and wireless — to people who live in Qwest's  region. Therefore, they can provide the NSA with at least some access  in that area.


Created by President Truman in 1952, during the  Korean War, the NSA is charged with protecting the United States from  foreign security threats. The agency was considered so secret that for  years the government refused to even confirm its existence. Government  insiders used to joke that NSA stood for "No Such Agency."


In 1975, a congressional investigation revealed  that the NSA had been intercepting, without warrants, international  communications for more than 20 years at the behest of the CIA and  other agencies. The spy campaign, code-named "Shamrock," led to the  Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was designed to  protect Americans from illegal eavesdropping.


Enacted in 1978, FISA lays out procedures that  the U.S. government must follow to conduct electronic surveillance and  physical searches of people believed to be engaged in espionage or  international terrorism against the United States. A special court,  which has 11 members, is responsible for adjudicating requests under  FISA.


Over the years, NSA code-cracking techniques  have continued to improve along with technology. The agency today is  considered expert in the practice of "data mining" — sifting through  reams of information in search of patterns. Data mining is just one of  many tools NSA analysts and mathematicians use to crack codes and track  international communications.


Paul Butler, a former U.S. prosecutor who  specialized in terrorism crimes, said FISA approval generally isn't  necessary for government data-mining operations. "FISA does not  prohibit the government from doing data mining," said Butler, now a  partner with the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in  Washington, D.C.


The caveat, he said, is that "personal  identifiers" — such as names, Social Security numbers and street  addresses — can't be included as part of the search. "That requires an  additional level of probable cause," he said.


The usefulness of the NSA's domestic phone-call  database as a counterterrorism tool is unclear. Also unclear is whether  the database has been used for other purposes.


The NSA's domestic program raises legal  questions. Historically, AT&T and the regional phone companies have  required law enforcement agencies to present a court order before they  would even consider turning over a customer's calling data. Part of  that owed to the personality of the old Bell Telephone System, out of  which those companies grew.


Ma Bell's bedrock principle — protection of the  customer — guided the company for decades, said Gene Kimmelman, senior  public policy director of Consumers Union. "No court order, no customer  information — period. That's how it was for decades," he said.


The concern for the customer was also based on  law: Under Section 222 of the Communications Act, first passed in 1934,  telephone companies are prohibited from giving out information  regarding their customers' calling habits: whom a person calls, how  often and what routes those calls take to reach their final  destination. Inbound calls, as well as wireless calls, also are  covered.


The financial penalties for violating Section  222, one of many privacy reinforcements that have been added to the law  over the years, can be stiff. The Federal Communications Commission,  the nation's top telecommunications regulatory agency, can levy fines  of up to $130,000 per day per violation, with a cap of $1.325 million  per violation. The FCC has no hard definition of "violation." In  practice, that means a single "violation" could cover one customer or 1  million.


In the case of the NSA's international  call-tracking program, Bush signed an executive order allowing the NSA  to engage in eavesdropping without a warrant. The president and his  representatives have since argued that an executive order was  sufficient for the agency to proceed. Some civil liberties groups,  including the American Civil Liberties Union, disagree.


Companies approached


The NSA's domestic program began soon after the  Sept. 11 attacks, according to the sources. Right around that time,  they said, NSA representatives approached the nation's biggest  telecommunications companies. The agency made an urgent pitch: National  security is at risk, and we need your help to protect the country from  attacks.


The agency told the companies that it wanted  them to turn over their "call-detail records," a complete listing of  the calling histories of their millions of customers. In addition, the  NSA wanted the carriers to provide updates, which would enable the  agency to keep tabs on the nation's calling habits.


The sources said the NSA made clear that it was  willing to pay for the cooperation. AT&T, which at the time was  headed by C. Michael Armstrong, agreed to help the NSA. So did  BellSouth, headed by F. Duane Ackerman; SBC, headed by Ed Whitacre; and  Verizon, headed by Ivan Seidenberg.


With that, the NSA's domestic program began in earnest.


AT&T, when asked about the program, replied  with a comment prepared for USA TODAY: "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."


In another prepared comment, BellSouth said:  "BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to  the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority."


Verizon, the USA's No. 2 telecommunications  company behind AT&T, gave this statement: "We do not comment on  national security matters, we act in full compliance with the law and  we are committed to safeguarding our customers' privacy."


Qwest spokesman Robert Charlton said: "We can't talk about this. It's a classified situation."


In December, The New York Times revealed  that Bush had authorized the NSA to wiretap, without warrants,  international phone calls and e-mails that travel to or from the USA.  The following month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil  liberties group, filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T. The  lawsuit accuses the company of helping the NSA spy on U.S. phone  customers.


Last month, U.S. Attorney General Alberto  Gonzales alluded to that possibility. Appearing at a House Judiciary  Committee hearing, Gonzales was asked whether he thought the White  House has the legal authority to monitor domestic traffic without a  warrant. Gonzales' reply: "I wouldn't rule it out." His comment marked  the first time a Bush appointee publicly asserted that the White House  might have that authority.


Similarities in programs


The domestic and international call-tracking  programs have things in common, according to the sources. Both are  being conducted without warrants and without the approval of the FISA  court. The Bush administration has argued that FISA's procedures are  too slow in some cases. Officials, including Gonzales, also make the  case that the USA Patriot Act gives them broad authority to protect the  safety of the nation's citizens.


The chairman of the Senate Intelligence  Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would not confirm the existence of  the program. In a statement, he said, "I can say generally, however,  that our subcommittee has been fully briefed on all aspects of the  Terrorist Surveillance Program. ... I remain convinced that the program  authorized by the president is lawful and absolutely necessary to  protect this nation from future attacks."


The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., declined to comment.


One company differs


One major telecommunications company declined to participate in the program: Qwest.


According to sources familiar with the events,  Qwest's CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA's  assertion that Qwest didn't need a court order — or approval under FISA  — to proceed. Adding to the tension, Qwest was unclear about who,  exactly, would have access to its customers' information and how that  information might be used.


Financial implications were also a concern, the  sources said. Carriers that illegally divulge calling information can  be subjected to heavy fines. The NSA was asking Qwest to turn over  millions of records. The fines, in the aggregate, could have been  substantial.


The NSA told Qwest that other government  agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the  database, the sources said. As a matter of practice, the NSA regularly  shares its information — known as "product" in intelligence circles —  with other intelligence groups. Even so, Qwest's lawyers were troubled  by the expansiveness of the NSA request, the sources said.


The NSA, which needed Qwest's participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.


Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA  representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among  the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to  Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested  that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise  national security, one person recalled.


In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's  foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work  with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest  already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.


Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was  proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA  court. According to the sources, the agency refused.


The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy  Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because  FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar  reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a  letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A  second person confirmed this version of events.


In June 2002, Nacchio resigned amid allegations  that he had misled investors about Qwest's financial health. But  Qwest's legal questions about the NSA request remained.


Unable to reach agreement, Nacchio's successor,  Richard Notebaert, finally pulled the plug on the NSA talks in late  2004, the sources said.

Pax Tecum,
Kevin V.

"I am a converted pagan living among apostate puritans"
- C.S. Lewis

"In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair, the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing,

Subscription Options:

One-time Donations: