The Bush administration is currently working to make it so the telecommunications companies can not get in trouble for warrantless eavesdropping when they aid the government’s National Security Agency. But how long has this partnership between the telecommunications industry and the N.S.A. been going on? If the truth comes out will that put a damper on the way citizens feel about their phone coverage?
In 2004 one major phone carrier hesitated at turning over their customer’s records. Not only did they hesitate they declined to help the government spy on their clients calling people in Latin America. The wiretapping was being used to detect narcotics trafficking. The program is classified.
In early 2001 Qwest refused to give the agency access to their localized switches. Those switches carry mostly domestic calls. Qwest was alarmed that had they allowed it could have allowed for neighbourhood to neighbour surveillance of phone traffic without protection of a court order. This gave them concerns.
The differences in technology changed the way agency’s like NSA could spy on telecommunications. Twenty years ago phone calls traveled using microwave towers or satellites via the air. Today with fiber optics the route from one phone to the next is more often land or sea which makes it much more difficult for these agencies to spy legally.
“It’s a very frayed and strained relationship right now, and that’s not a good thing for the country in terms of keeping all of us safe,” said an industry official who believes that immunity is critical for the phone carriers. “This episode has caused companies to change their conduct in a variety of ways.”
The Senate will be voting on the issue of safeguarding the phone companies early in the week. The Bush administration is working hard to get that retroactive immunity passed for those companies.
Two years ago the federal government and phone carriers were involved in more than 40 lawsuits dealing with eavesdropping and terror suspects within the United States.
“The intelligence community cannot go it alone,” Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article Monday urging Congress to pass the immunity provision. “Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits.”
The program of listening into phone calls that have to deal with drug trafficking dates back to the 1990’s but it seems to expanded in recent years. According to the government they have not listened into the calls but have used call lists and email addresses to study links between citizens in the US and overseas. Senior Justice Department officials in both the Clinton and Bush administer signed off on the program.
The phone companies themselves have hesitated in giving information to officials. Days after the agency met with Qwest in February of 2001 they had a meeting with AT&T officials in Bedminster, N.J. to give the NSA total access to global phone and email that ran out of the site. During this conversation the agency “could listen in” to communications that they deemed to have intelligence value and store them for later use. There was no mention of limiting the monitoring to just international communications according to a former engineer on the project.
“At some point,” he said, “I started feeling something isn’t right.”
The information from 2001 and AT&T shows that within two weeks of Bush taking office that a comprehensive effort started to spy on Americans’ phone usage according to New Jersey lawyer Bruce Afran.
During this same time period Verizon is accused of setting up a dedicated fiber optic line from New Jersey to Quantico, Va. That location is home to a large military base. This line allowed the government to gain access to all communications flowing through the carrier’s operations centre. A former consultant who working on the internal security with this project tried to install safeguards to prevent hacking on the system. He had done the same at other operations centres but at the Virginia base his ideas were repeatedly rejected by a senior security official.
Another lawsuit in San Francisco is so shrouded in government secrecy that the facts are unknown. What is known is a former AT&T employee Mark Klein stumbled into a secret room at the communications San Francisco facility that was reserved for NSA Company documents. Klein obtained some of those documents and other former employees of AT&T have supported his claim that the agency was given access to a range of domestic and international Internet traffic.
“Congress shouldn’t grant amnesty to companies that broke the law by conspiring to illegally spy on Americans” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.
But Bobby R. Inman, a retired admiral and former N.S.A. director who has publicly criticized the agency’s domestic eavesdropping program, says he still supports immunity for the companies that cooperated.
“The responsibility ought to be on the government, not on the companies that are trying to help with national security requirements,” Admiral Inman said. If the companies decided to stop cooperating, he added, “it would have a huge impact on both the timeliness and availability of critical intelligence.”