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[infowar.de] Some companies helped the NSA, but which?
Some companies helped the NSA, but which?
By Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: February 6, 2006, 4:00 AM PST
A survey by CNET News.com has identified 15 large telecom and Internet
companies that are willing to say that they have not participated in the
NSA surveillance program, as well as another 12 that declined to reply.
"Major telecommunications companies" have reportedly opened their networks
to the NSA. Because it may be illegal to divulge customer communications,
though, not one of the companies has chosen to make its cooperation public.
This is the first in a two-part series. Coming Tuesday, part two: A
glimpse at the technical details of how the National Security Agency's
electronic surveillance system seems to work.
Even after the recent scrutiny of the National Security Agency's domestic
surveillance project approved by President Bush, an intriguing question
remains unanswered: Which corporations cooperated with the spy agency?
Some reports have identified executives at "major telecommunications
companies" who chose to open their networks to the NSA. Because it may be
illegal to divulge customer communications, though, not one has chosen to
make its cooperation public.
Under federal law, any person or company who helps someone "intercept any
wire, oral, or electronic communication"--unless specifically authorized
by law--could face criminal charges. Even if cooperation is found to be
legal, however, it could be embarrassing to acknowledge opening up
customers' communications to a spy agency.
A survey by CNET News.com has identified 15 large telecommunications and
Internet companies that are willing to say that they have not participated
in the NSA program, which intercepts e-mail and telephone calls without a
Twelve other companies that were contacted and asked identical questions
chose not to reply, in some cases citing "national security" as the reason.
Those results come amid a push on Capitol Hill for more information about
the NSA's wiretapping practices. On Monday, Attorney General Alberto
Gonzales is expected to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing,
and President Bush and his closest allies have been stepping up their
defense of the program in preparation for it.
To be sure, there are a number of possible explanations for the companies'
silence. In some cases, a company's media department could have been
overworked. Another possibility is the company's lawyers were unavailable
or chose not to reply for unknown reasons.
Also, some survey recipients, such as NTT Communications, responded with a
general statement expressing compliance "with law enforcement requests as
permitted and required by law" rather than addressing the question of NSA
A lawsuit that could yield more details about industry cooperation is
winding its way through the federal courts. Last week, the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco, sued
AT&T after a report that the company had shared its customer records
database--though not its network--with the NSA.
AT&T would not respond when asked whether it participated. An AT&T
spokesman, Dave Pacholczyk, said: "We don't comment on matters of national
The News.com survey, started Jan. 25, found that wireless providers and
cable companies were the most likely to distance themselves from the NSA.
Cingular Wireless, Comcast, Cox Communications, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile
said they had not turned over information or opened their networks to the
NSA without being required by law.
Companies that are backbone providers, or which operate undersea cables
spanning the ocean, were among the least likely to respond. AT&T, Cable &
Wireless, Global Crossing, Level 3, NTT Communications, SAVVIS
Communications and Verizon Communications chose not to answer the
questions posed to them.
The New York Times reported on Dec. 24 that the NSA has gained access to
switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States'
communications networks and international networks. But "the identities of
the corporations involved could not be determined," the newspaper added.
At the water's edge
Analysts and historians who follow the intelligence community have long
said the companies that operate submarine cables--armored sheaths wrapped
around bundles of fiber optic lines--surreptitiously provide access to the
"You go to Global Crossing and say...once your cable comes up for air in
New Jersey or on the coast of Virginia, wherever it goes up, we want to
put a little splice in, thank you very much, which NSA can do," said
Matthew Aid, who recently completed the first volume in a multiple-volume
history of the NSA. "The technology of getting access to that stuff is
Aid was citing Global Crossing as an example, not singling it out. Global
Crossing describes itself as an Internet backbone network that shuttles
traffic for about 700 telecommunications carriers, mobile operators and
Internet service providers. According to the International Cable
Protection Committee, the company has full or partial ownership of several
trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cables.
Global Crossing spokesman Tom Topalian said "99 percent of wiretapping
is done at a local phone company level" instead of at backbone providers.
Topalian declined to answer questions about NSA access, and added: "All
U.S. carriers have to comply with the CALEA act, and Global Crossing
complies with CALEA." (CALEA is a 1994 federal law requiring certain
telecommunications providers to make their networks wiretap-friendly for
domestic law enforcement, not intelligence agencies.)
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., last month sent a letter (click for PDF) to
companies including Google, Yahoo, EarthLink, Verizon and T-Mobile asking
them if they cooperated with the NSA. News.com asked similar questions,
but expanded the number of companies to include backbone and submarine
Among the companies that responded, some offered far more detail than
others. Les Seagraves, EarthLink's chief privacy officer, said: "We've
never even been asked to give information without the benefit of a
subpoena or a court order behind it. And our policy is to require a
subpoena or court order, basically to require a court of law behind the
"We're very interested in protecting our customers' privacy and balancing
that with our duties to comply with the law," Seagraves added. "Our way to
balance that is to definitely make sure we have a valid legal request
before we release any information."
Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said the company "will only provide
customer information pursuant to a valid court order and only if Comcast's
records contain information sufficient to identify the customer account on
the (date or dates) listed in the court order."
A representative of Cox Communications, David Grabert, said: "Cox has
never received a request for information or a wiretap that was not
accompanied by a warrant."
NSA's history of industry deals
Louis Tordella, the longest-serving deputy director of the NSA,
acknowledged to overseeing a similar project to intercept telegrams as
recently as the 1970s. It relied on the major telegraph companies
including Western Union secretly turning over copies of all messages sent
to or from the United States.
"All of the big international carriers were involved, but none of 'em ever
got a nickel for what they did," Tordella said before his death in 1996,
according to a history written by L. Britt Snider, a Senate aide who
became the CIA's inspector general.
The telegraph interception operation was called Project Shamrock. It
involved a courier making daily trips from the NSA's headquarters in Fort
Meade, Md., to New York to retrieve digital copies of the telegrams on
Like today's eavesdropping system authorized by Bush, Project Shamrock had
a "watch list" of people in the U.S. whose conversations would be
identified and plucked out of the ether by NSA computers. It was intended
to be used for foreign intelligence purposes.
Then-President Richard Nixon, plagued by anti-Vietnam protests and worried
about foreign influence, ordered that Project Shamrock's electronic ear be
turned inward to eavesdrop on American citizens. In 1969, Nixon met with
the heads of the NSA, CIA and FBI and authorized a program to intercept
"the communications of U.S. citizens using international facilities,"
meaning international calls, according to James Bamford's 2001 book titled
"Body of Secrets."
Nixon later withdrew the formal authorization, but informally, police and
intelligence agencies kept adding names to the watch list. At its peak,
600 American citizens appeared on the list, including singer Joan Baez,
pediatrician Benjamin Spock, actress Jane Fonda and the Rev. Martin Luther
Details about Project Shamrock became public as part of a Senate
investigation of the NSA. Telegraph companies participating in the program
initially balked when questioned by Senate investigators. But documents
turned over by the NSA "cast doubt on the veracity of the companies'
claims that they could find no documentation pertaining to Shamrock,"
wrote Snider. "After all, this had concerned the highest levels of their
corporate management for at least four years."
Another apparent example of NSA and industry cooperation became public in
1995. The Baltimore Sun reported that for decades NSA had rigged the
encryption products of Crypto AG, a Swiss firm, so U.S. eavesdroppers
could easily break their codes.
The six-part story, based on interviews with former employees and company
documents, said Crypto AG sold its compromised security products to some
120 countries, including prime U.S. intelligence targets such as Iran,
Iraq, Libya and Yugoslavia. (Crypto AG disputed the allegations.)
"Only a very few top executives"
The extent of the NSA's surveillance project in operation today remains
unclear. Attorney General Gonzales has stressed that the program
intercepts e-mail and phone conversations only when "one party to the
communication is outside the United States."
In his book titled "State of War," New York Times reporter James Risen
wrote: "The NSA has extremely close relationships with both the
telecommunications and computer industries, according to several
government officials. Only a very few top executives in each corporation
are aware of such relationships."
Tapping into undersea copper and fiber-optic cables where they make
landfall would be one way to create a virtual web of surveillance that can
snare Internet packets or voice communications when they traverse U.S.
borders. One benefit for the government is that one participant in the
conversation is likely to be overseas--permitting Gonzales and the NSA to
stress the interception's international nature.
Another method would be to seek the cooperation of backbone providers with
networks entirely within the United States. That could be done with a tap
hooked up to the switches at a telephone company or backbone provider,
said Phill Shade, a network engineer for WildPackets who is the company's
director of international support services. WildPackets sells network
"The tap essentially splits off a copy of the traffic--it would literally
take a copy of all the traffic as it moves through the wire," Shade said.
"Picture a capital letter 'Y' in your head...One copy goes back out the
regular wire on the right side of the wire, and the copy you're interested
in splitting goes off the left side of the Y to you. These are very common
networking devices, used in networks all over the world."
The tap's exact location may matter. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania
Republican who is convening Monday's hearing, has asked Gonzales to
respond to a series of questions about the legality of the program. One
question Specter is posing: If intercepted calls are "routed through
switches which were physically located on U.S. soil, would that constitute
a violation of law or regulation restricting NSA from conducting
surveillance inside the United States?"
Who's helping the NSA?
CNET News.com asked telecommunications and Internet companies about
cooperation with the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping scheme.
We asked them: "Have you turned over information or opened up your
networks to the NSA without being compelled by law?"
Adelphia Communications Declined comment
AOL Time Warner No 
AT&T Declined comment
BellSouth Communications No
Cable & Wireless* No response
Cablevision Systems No
Charter Communications No 
Cingular Wireless No 
Citizens Communications No response
Cogent Communications* No 
Cox Communications No
Global Crossing* Inconclusive
Google Declined comment
Level 3* No response
Microsoft No 
NTT Communications* Inconclusive 
Qwest Communications No 
SAVVIS Communications* No response
Sprint Nextel No 
T-Mobile USA No 
United Online No response
Verizon Communications Inconclusive 
XO Communications* No 
Yahoo Declined comment
* = Not a company contacted by Rep. John Conyers.
 The answer did not explicitly address NSA but said that compliance
happens only if required by law.
 Provided by a source with knowledge of what this company is telling
Conyers. In the case of Sprint Nextel, the source was familiar with
 As part of an answer to a closely related question for a different survey.
 The response was "NTT Communications respects the privacy rights of
our customers and complies fully with law enforcement requests as
permitted and required by law."
 The response was "Verizon complies with applicable laws and does not
comment on law enforcement or national security matters."
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