Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wider Spying Fuels Aid Plan for Telecom Industry

Published: December 16, 2007

This article is by Eric Lichtblau, James Risen and Scott Shane.

WASHINGTON — For months, the Bush administration has waged a high-profile campaign, including personal lobbying by President Bush and closed-door briefings by top officials, to persuade Congress to pass legislation protecting companies from lawsuits for aiding the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping program.

But the battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government’s extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.

The N.S.A.’s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure.

To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. But in 2004, one major phone carrier balked at turning over its customers’ records. Worried about possible privacy violations or public relations problems, company executives declined to help the operation, which has not been previously disclosed.

In a separate N.S.A. project, executives at a Denver phone carrier, Qwest, refused in early 2001 to give the agency access to their most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls, according to people aware of the request, which has not been previously reported. They say the arrangement could have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order, which alarmed them.

The federal government’s reliance on private industry has been driven by changes in technology. Two decades ago, telephone calls and other communications traveled mostly through the air, relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The N.S.A. could vacuum up phone, fax and data traffic merely by erecting its own satellite dishes. But the fiber optics revolution has sent more and more international communications by land and undersea cable, forcing the agency to seek company cooperation to get access.

After the disclosure two years ago that the N.S.A. was eavesdropping on the international communications of terrorism suspects inside the United States without warrants, more than 40 lawsuits were filed against the government and phone carriers. As a result, skittish companies and their lawyers have been demanding stricter safeguards before they provide access to the government and, in some cases, are refusing outright to cooperate, officials said.

“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.”

With a vote in the Senate on the issue expected as early as Monday, the Bush administration has intensified its efforts to win retroactive immunity for companies cooperating with counterterrorism operations.

“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.”

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey echoed that theme in an op-ed article of his own in The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, saying private companies would be reluctant to provide their “full-hearted help” if they were not given legal protections.

The government’s dependence on the phone industry, driven by the changes in technology and the Bush administration’s desire to expand surveillance capabilities inside the United States, has grown significantly since the Sept. 11 attacks. The N.S.A., though, wanted to extend its reach even earlier. In December 2000, agency officials wrote a transition report to the incoming Bush administration, saying the agency must become a “powerful, permanent presence” on the commercial communications network, a goal that they acknowledged would raise legal and privacy issues.

While the N.S.A. operates under restrictions on domestic spying, the companies have broader concerns — customers’ demands for privacy and shareholders’ worries about bad publicity.

In the drug-trafficking operation, the N.S.A. has been helping the Drug Enforcement Administration in collecting the phone records showing patterns of calls between the United States, Latin America and other drug-producing regions. The program dates to the 1990s, according to several government officials, but it appears to have expanded in recent years.

Officials say the government has not listened to the communications, but has instead used phone numbers and e-mail addresses to analyze links between people in the United States and overseas. Senior Justice Department officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations signed off on the operation, which uses broad administrative subpoenas but does not require court approval to demand the records.

At least one major phone carrier — whose identity could not be confirmed — refused to cooperate, citing concerns in 2004 that the subpoenas were overly broad, government and industry officials said. The executives also worried that if the program were exposed, the company would face a public-relations backlash.

The D.E.A. declined to comment on the call-tracing program, except to say that it “exercises its legal authority” to issue administrative subpoenas. The N.S.A. also declined to comment on it.

In a separate program, N.S.A. officials met with the Qwest executives in February 2001 and asked for more access to their phone system for surveillance operations, according to people familiar with the episode. The company declined, expressing concerns that the request was illegal without a court order.

While Qwest’s refusal was disclosed two months ago in court papers, the details of the N.S.A.’s request were not. The agency, those knowledgeable about the incident said, wanted to install monitoring equipment on Qwest’s “Class 5” switching facilities, which transmit the most localized calls. Limited international traffic also passes through the switches.

A government official said the N.S.A. intended to single out only foreigners on Qwest’s network, and added that the agency believed Joseph Nacchio, then the chief executive of Qwest, and other company officials misunderstood the agency’s proposal. Bob Toevs, a Qwest spokesman, said the company did not comment on matters of national security.

Other N.S.A. initiatives have stirred concerns among phone company workers. A lawsuit was filed in federal court in New Jersey challenging the agency’s wiretapping operations. It claims that in February 2001, just days before agency officials met with Qwest officials, the N.S.A. met with AT&T officials to discuss replicating a network center in Bedminster, N.J., to give the agency access to all the global phone and e-mail traffic that ran through it.

The accusations rely in large part on the assertions of a former engineer on the project. The engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that he participated in numerous discussions with N.S.A. officials about the proposal. The officials, he said, discussed ways to duplicate the Bedminster system in Maryland so the agency “could listen in” with unfettered access to communications that it believed had intelligence value and store them for later review. There was no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications, he said.

“At some point,” he said, “I started feeling something isn’t right.”

Two other AT&T employees who worked on the proposal discounted his claims, saying in interviews that the project had simply sought to improve the N.S.A.’s internal communications systems and was never designed to allow the agency access to outside communications. Michael Coe, a company spokesman, said: “AT&T is fully committed to protecting our customers’ privacy. We do not comment on matters of national security.”

But lawyers for the plaintiffs say that if the suit were allowed to proceed, internal AT&T documents would verify the engineer’s account.

“What he saw,” said Bruce Afran, a New Jersey lawyer representing the plaintiffs along with Carl Mayer, “was decisive evidence that within two weeks of taking office, the Bush administration was planning a comprehensive effort of spying on Americans’ phone usage.”

The same lawsuit accuses Verizon of setting up a dedicated fiber optic line from New Jersey to Quantico, Va., home to a large military base, allowing government officials to gain access to all communications flowing through the carrier’s operations center. In an interview, a former consultant who worked on internal security said 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 his ideas were rejected by a senior security official.

The facts behind a class-action lawsuit in San Francisco are also shrouded in government secrecy. The case relies on disclosures by a former AT&T employee, Mark Klein, who says he stumbled upon a secret room at an company facility in San Francisco that was reserved for the N.S.A. Company documents he obtained and other former AT&T employees have lent some support to his claim that the facility gave the agency access to a range of domestic and international Internet traffic.

The telecommunications companies that gave the government access are pushing hard for legal protection from Congress. As part of a broader plan to restructure the N.S.A.’s wiretapping authority, the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed to give immunity to the telecommunications companies, but the Judiciary Committee refused to do so. The White House has threatened to veto any plan that left out immunity, as the House bill does.

“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.”



SHOULD immunity be granted to companies who broke the law in the past to "help fight terrorism"?

SHOULD the government take full responsibility for the leak of information?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well I guess the government should try to do what every it takes to protect their country. But I know they have other ways to. I don't think listening to people convocation is the best way to go. Only if they have a warrant and believe that person is doing some thing worng. But if that’s what they think it takes than is it.

KEMI AJIROTUTU

W Brown said...

So Kemi you are "ok" giving up privacy for safety?

Anonymous said...

Am not ok but if that’s what it take than what I can do. I rather know that they will do something like this than to keep it from me now that’s invading my privacy. But if I know and I have nothing to hide than its ok.


KEMI AJIROTUTU

Anonymous said...

Manpreet Kaur

I don't think companies that broke the law in the past should be granted immunity "help fight terrorism".
If the government has the right to gain information, then they should have full responsibilty for the "leak of information."
"To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified."

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kemi. The government should do everything and anything to protect their country especially after what happened on 9/11. But I also think that people have the right to have their privacy also, but if they are suspected that they are doing something wrong then they should definteley be searched.

-Simran Kaur

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kemi. I feel that the government tries to do whatever it takes already to protect the country we live in but sometimes go about it in the wrong way probably. I think that if the government would have a good enough reason to invade someone's privacy than they have all the right to do so. Its all for our protection to keep us safe.

-Bryan S.

Anonymous said...

Courteney Richardson

I think the government has a few of dirty workers. to me I don't think none of them are loyal to their work like they use to be. you have dirty cops && spies.. && that's not what the government need to keep a safe government. I think the idea of phone tapping most is a very good idea. maybe some of those dirty workers can get a punishment for trying to mess with official business.. as we all know the united states is a very secretive state && I think they don't need they business out and about.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what kemi said about how government should try to do a lot to protect the country and i also agree with bryan that sometime the government as to go through other peoples privacy order to get the answers their looking for.

-Khizer Hayat

Anonymous said...

I agree with Simran, after the 9/11 attack the country needs to protect us and whatever it takes to protect the country then we need to accept it. I believe that a warrant is needed if they want to invade someone's privacy. I think giving up our privacy to be safe is "ok" to an extent.
-Anta R.

Alyssa Faller said...

This can be a very touchy subject. We all have heard or seen someone's privacy given up for our countries safety. But how can we say what they are doing is really for our own safety. Right now we are at war with terror, so should we go around people anyone who has dark skin, and wears bright and shimmer clothes in camps somewhere, to make sure they don't blow anything up. I think that is completely and utterly disgusting. Our nation attempted to act like this once, during World War Two, when our country thought that any person who was an immigrant from japan, was a threat to our nation. So we took away their privacy for our countries safety. I think that doing things like that is wrong, but I believe in our nation, and if they tell me that they have a lead on someone that could be threating our country, and they need to read his emails, I would step aside, and let them do what they have to.

Anonymous said...

I feel as if giving up privacy for safety will help out in the long run. I rather somebody list en to an hour conversation with me and a friend thoen nobody listening to a person of authority give away government information to a terrorist.I wouldn't say all cops and government officials are "goody two shoes" but most in my opinion find a lot of pride and integrity to hold there title.

- j blount

Samantha Ross said...

I agree with Manpreet, companies that broke the law in the past should not be granted immunity to "help fight terrorism". But at the same time the government does need to do what they feel is the best to protect us. Even though the government can be wrong but people make mistakes. If they feel they need to invade someone’s privacy they should do it, they shouldn't hold back. You never know the outcome of something unless you try and if they invade someone’s privacy they will survive if they did nothing wrong.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jonathan, that it will better us the people of the U.S. if people are actually listening. If the government was doing this earlier I believe that alot of the terrorist activity would of been kept to a minimum. I also wonder what if this technology is used for a different purpose other than terrorism and we already gave consent for the government to use it, would there be ways we can fight back against the false usage.

JAMAAL ADAMS

Bjorn Olivier said...

i do belivie that the goverment should take full responibility for the leak of info. the infomation that is within the goverment have to be very impormant. and the leak of info could cause a situaitons that could cost people their lives and it wouldn't be any ones fault but the governments but they would not want to take want to the blame but would pin the troubles on who attacked us

Bjorn Olivier

Anonymous said...

I do believe that the government should take any risk into protecting their own country, because they come first and nomatter if they try to invade their privacy but is for our own safety. Especially after what happen on 9/11 they have the right because you never know.
-Sorybel