Big Brother and Ma Bell

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There is a long and detailed article in USA Today contradicting the Bush administration’s claim that NSA telecommunication spying was confined to external sources.

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.

“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 timing of this revelation will make the conformation hearing for Air Force General Michael Hadyen as director of the CIA even more interesting as Hayden headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, he would have overseen the agency’s domestic call-tracking program.

Last year Bush admitted that he had authorized NSA to eavesdrop on international calls and e-mails without obtaining FISA warrants. He insisted, however, that the program did not include domestic communication.

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.

Big-Brother-Bush According the the USA Today article, NSA’s domestic program began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. NSA representatives approached the nation’s biggest telecommunications companies, AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest, with the urgent message that their help was needed 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, 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, Bell South, and Verizon agreed to help the NSA.

Qwest was the only company that refused to cooperate. According to USA Today’s sources, NSA exerted tremendous pressure on Qwest.

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.

Is it just a coincidence that AT&T and Verizon are the telecommunication giants pushing against Net Neutrality, while Qwest is not? I don’t think so.

Will these latest revelations finally bring about congressional oversight? According to the Associated Press:

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel ”to find out exactly what is going on.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the panel, sounded incredulous about the latest report and railed against what he called a lack of congressional oversight. He argued that the media was doing the job of Congress. ”Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al Qaeda?” Leahy asked. ”These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything … Where does it stop?” The Democrat, who at one point held up a copy of the newspaper, added: ”Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents.”

Of course, the Republican controlled Congress has been exactly that, a rubber stamp for the administration. We will see if this latest news changes anything. I doubt it will. The only hope is that the voters will fold a few tents for them this November.

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