15 June 2013
2006: NSA Massive Database of US Phone Calls
Related lawsuit by telco customers:
NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls
Updated 5/11/2006 10:38 AM ET E-mail | Print |
From the White House:
The White House defended its overall eavesdropping program and said no domestic
surveillance is conducted without court approval.
''The intelligence activities undertaken by the United States government
are lawful, necessary and required to protect Americans from terrorist attacks,''
said Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, who added that
appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on intelligence activities.
From Capitol Hill:
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
''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.''
The report came as the former NSA director, Gen. Michael Hayden - Bush's
choice to take over leadership of the CIA - had been scheduled to visit lawmakers
on Capitol Hill Thursday. However, the meetings with Republican Sens. Rick
Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were postponed at the
request of the White House, said congressional aides in the two Senate offices.
Source: The Associated Press
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
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
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."
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
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 program
"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
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 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 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
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
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,"
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
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 customers'
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.