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NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/usatoday/nsahasmassivedatabaseofamericansphonecalls;_ylt=AitaYqNJ5P6wb5N4DypvSfys0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTA2Z2szazkxBHNlYwN0bQ-- NSA has massive
    Message 1 of 1 , May 11, 2006

      NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls

      By Leslie Cauley, USA TODAY 2 hours, 58 minutes ago

      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

      "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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
      Sen. Pat Roberts (news, bio, voting record), 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

      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.
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