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.
just how big does a database need to be to be the biggest in the world? that's bigger than google. in other words, it's a texas-sized database full of your phone records.
1. are you involved with al qaeda?
2. do you use telephone service from at&t, verizon, or bell south?
if you answered yes to either of these questions, a detailed list of every phone call you've made or received is on file with the government. your phones are being monitored for your safety. pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. (that man behind the curtain, general michael hayden, is the president's pick to succeed porter goss as head of the CIA.)
we were previously assured that only those who answered yes to #1 were being monitored. oops. i guess that was a lie. those three corporations gladly handed over all their customer records to the NSA, without a warrant, in controvention of federal law (FISA). their participation was entirely voluntary. but one company said no.
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.
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.
if you are lucky enough to use phone service from qwest, you're safe from the prying eyes... assuming you never call anyone who uses at&t, verizon, or bell south.
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.
despite repeated denials, we've suspected for a long time that this was happening. the EFF filed a class-action lawsuit accusing at&t of illegally collaborating with the NSA. a couple weeks ago, the bush administration desperately tried to get the case dismissed, claiming the states secret privelege. it's kind of a moot point now, but kudos to the EFF for once again drawing attention to an important issue before it's on most people's radars. and beaucoup kudos to qwest for refusing to participate in the NSA power grab.¶