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[infowar.de] NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls
"Data Retention" existiert dort also schon, wenn auch auf
quasi-freiwilliger Grundlage. QWest hat sich immerhin erfolgreich dagegen
verwehrt. Dafür kriegt die NSA von den anderen Firmen gleich alle Daten
pauschal und muss nicht einzeln anfragen, wie es hier mit der
EU-Richtlinie geplant ist.
NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls
Updated 5/11/2006 12:30 AM ET
By Leslie Cauley, USA TODAY
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.
"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 said.
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
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
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 law."
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 eavesdropping.
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 Americans.
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 Agency."
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 eavesdropping.
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 million.
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.
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 earnest.
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
Qwest spokesman Robert Charlton said: "We can't talk about this. It's a
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 authority.
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
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts,
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
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 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
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.
Contributing: John Diamond
Posted 5/10/2006 11:16 PM ET
OFFICIAL WORDS ON SURVEILLANCE
Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that the warrantless
surveillance program authorized by President Bush after the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks is carefully targeted to include only international
calls and e-mails into or out of the USA, and only those that involve at
least one party suspected of being a member or ally of al-Qaeda or a
related terror group.
Some comments related to what the administration calls the "Terrorist
Surveillance Program," and surveillance in general:
Gen. Michael Hayden, principal deputy director of national intelligence,
and now Bush's nominee to head the CIA, at the National Press Club, Jan.
"The program ... is not a drift net over (U.S. cities such as) Dearborn or
Lackawanna or Fremont, grabbing conversations that we then sort out by
these alleged keyword searches or data-mining tools or other devices that
so-called experts keep talking about.
"This is targeted and focused. This is not about intercepting
conversations between people in the United States. This is hot pursuit of
communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is
associated with al-Qaeda. ... This is focused. It's targeted. It's very
carefully done. You shouldn't worry."
Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 6, 2006:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: "Only international communications are
authorized for interception under this program. That is, communications
between a foreign country and this country. ...
"To protect the privacy of Americans still further, the NSA employs
safeguards to minimize the unnecessary collection and dissemination of
information about U.S. persons."
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.: "I don't understand why you would limit your
eavesdropping only to foreign conversations. ..."
Gonzales: "I believe it's because of trying to balance concerns that might
arise that, in fact, the NSA was engaged in electronic surveillance with
respect to domestic calls."
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