US spy agency building database of every call ever made

May 11, 2006

 
After report says millions of Americans' phone records have been given to the National Security Agency (NSA), Bush says privacy is ''fiercely protected.''

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 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.

With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Section 2702 of Title 18 in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act prohibits electronic communications service providers from knowingly divulging a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber or customer to any government entity without customer consent, subpoena or court order.

Among the big telecommunications companies, only Qwest has refused to help the NSA. 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 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.

The NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database, the sources said.

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, reported USA TODAY.

Defending his administration's espionage program, Bush said intelligence activities he had authorized were lawful and the government was not eavesdropping on domestic phone calls without court approval.

"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said from the White House. "Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates. So far, we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil."

Ever since news of the surveillance program became public in December, the president and members of his administration have stressed that it was limited to intercepting phone conversations and e-mail messages where one party to the conversation was outside the United States. In January, Bush assured Americans that "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

However, the government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers security clearance.

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, sent a fax Wednesday to Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York saying it was closing its inquiry because without clearance it could not examine department lawyers' role in the program.

"We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," OPR counsel H. Marshall Jarrett wrote to Hinchey. Hinchey's office shared the letter with The Associated Press.

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 customers.

The lawsuit does not name the government as a defendant, but the Department of Justice has sought to quash the lawsuit, saying it threatens to expose government and military secrets.

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.

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