NY Times: NSA Wanted Telecoms' Help With Data-Mining in Drug Cases

The New York Times has some new and very disturbing revelations in the NSA warrantless wiretapping controversy. The news may explain why the telecoms are fighting so hard for retroactivity immunity in the planned FISA law revision.

To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. But in 2004, one major phone carrier balked at turning over its customers’ records. Worried about possible privacy violations or public relations problems, company executives declined to help the operation, which has not been previously disclosed.

In a separate N.S.A. project, executives at a Denver phone carrier, Qwest, refused in early 2001 to give the agency access to their most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls, according to people aware of the request, which has not been previously reported. They say the arrangement could have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order, which alarmed them.


In the drug-trafficking operation, the N.S.A. has been helping the Drug Enforcement Administration in collecting the phone records showing patterns of calls between the United States, Latin America and other drug-producing regions. The program dates to the 1990s, according to several government officials, but it appears to have expanded in recent years.

Officials say the government has not listened to the communications, but has instead used phone numbers and e-mail addresses to analyze links between people in the United States and overseas. Senior Justice Department officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations signed off on the operation, which uses broad administrative subpoenas but does not require court approval to demand the records.

As to Qwest,

In a separate program, N.S.A. officials met with the Qwest executives in February 2001 and asked for more access to their phone system for surveillance operations, according to people familiar with the episode. The company declined, expressing concerns that the request was illegal without a court order.

While Qwest’s refusal was disclosed two months ago in court papers, the details of the N.S.A.’s request were not. The agency, those knowledgeable about the incident said, wanted to install monitoring equipment on Qwest’s “Class 5” switching facilities, which transmit the most localized calls. Limited international traffic also passes through the switches.

I don't believe the Government. This isn't the only effort the Government has made to gather information on Latin Americans. Back in 2003, it was reported that the Government was using ChoicePoint to data mine their information for use in investigations.

In late 2001, the Justice Department signed the first of several contracts with ChoicePoint, a company that collects biographical information and sells it to employers and insurance companies for resume checking and identity verification. Other clients are media organizations, including the Chicago Tribune.

U.S. officials say the purpose of the contract was national security. They contend that the information will bring quicker identity verification, such as when officials are trying to uncover a smuggler among a group of illegal immigrants, as well as enhance their ability to detect suspicious patterns of behavior that could lead to the discovery of terrorist cells.

More on that here.

Today's Times' disclosures are big news in light of Monday's debate and vote on whether to grant retroactive immunity to the telecoms in the proposed revision of FISA. Shouldn't those telecoms that broke the law and gave up customer information or access to their calls or records without a court order be held accountable?

One other interesting note: Former Qwest chief Joseph Nacchio's appeal heads to oral argument Tuesday in Denver. Among his grounds for reversal of his insider trading conviction:

The National Security Agency and other government agencies retaliated against Qwest because the Denver telco refused to go along with a phone spying program, documents released Wednesday suggest.

The documents indicate that likely would have been at the heart of former CEO Joe Nacchio's so-called "classified information" defense at his insider trading trial, had he been allowed to present it.

The secret contracts - worth hundreds of millions of dollars - made Nacchio optimistic about Qwest's future, even as his staff was warning him the company might not make its numbers....

Nacchio was prevented from making this argument to the jury because the Judge had deemed it irrelevant -- the Court of Appeals will have to decide if the Judge was correct.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Harry Reid (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by DA in LA on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 01:13:30 AM EST

    Crap. (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by Edger on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 08:53:21 AM EST
    This isn't to "detect narcotics trafficking".

    This is to intimidate the whole country into submission.

    Can you tell me (1.00 / 1) (#8)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 09:36:47 AM EST
    why call patterns from/to foreign countries from/to the US would intimidate???

    As a matter of fact, I think the telephone numbers are public information. Dozens of people have access to them and they are utilized by various companies for various reasons.

    That is not true of the "content."

    Learn the difference.

    BTW - Why do you think Clinton wanted the information? And shouldn't Hillary be explaining??
    I mean she claims to have been in on all the decsisons...


    Excuse me (5.00 / 2) (#11)
    by hellskitchen on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 01:33:02 PM EST
    You don't think knowing that your phone conversations might be recorded or your personal data used is not intimidating?

    In the summer of 2004, I had a face to face conversation with a friend in another country about the upcoming presidential election.  And, of course, you can take it as read that you and I don't share the same opinion.

    A few months later my friend called and mentioned the upcoming election again and asked, "So, are you fighting the good fight?"

    An innocent question, but I froze.  This administration came about by fraud and has been abusing power since day one.

    Anyone thinking that this isn't intimidating is living in la-la land.


    Well, here is my advice (1.00 / 1) (#14)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 04:59:52 PM EST
    for you:



    Does not compute (1.00 / 1) (#6)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 08:54:15 AM EST
    If I was going to look at the calls from/to Denver from/to another country/region I would go the class 4 Point of Presence (POP)and do if there. Not to the  22 or so Class 5 locations.

    Who was the President in the 1990s again? (none / 0) (#2)
    by joejoejoe on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 04:26:24 AM EST
    In the drug-trafficking operation, the N.S.A. has been helping the Drug Enforcement Administration in collecting the phone records showing patterns of calls between the United States, Latin America and other drug-producing regions. The program dates to the 1990s, according to several government officials, but it appears to have expanded in recent years.

    Somebody should ask Bill Clinton about this while he's out on the stump.

    Umm. George Herbert Walker Bush (5.00 / 0) (#10)
    by scribe on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 12:58:28 PM EST
    He was president in the 90s.

    I kinda doubt the NSA told WJC what the NSA was up to, in detail.  He might be inclined to stop it.


    hehe (1.00 / 0) (#12)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 04:56:45 PM EST
    Wonderfully outrageous.....

    Can you spell Clinton..??

    Of course how would you know? The NYT didn't dare write his name..



    Okay, (none / 0) (#16)
    by DA in LA on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 05:49:45 PM EST
    but at this point it is completely irrelevant.  Completely.

    Why?? (1.00 / 0) (#17)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 06:23:28 PM EST
    You, and the Demo Left want to make some political points out of it. When we see that Clinton started it.... If GHWB had started it the NYT would have screamed that.. the story becomes completely different..

    I take it (none / 0) (#20)
    by Jen M on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 07:08:49 PM EST
    You are maintaining that Clinton was President in 1990?

    Good morning Jen M (1.00 / 0) (#22)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Dec 17, 2007 at 07:44:04 AM EST
    I see that you are still having reading problems.

    If GHWB had started it the NYT would have screamed that..

    My proposition is simple.

    Since the NYT did not identify, then GHWB was not involved.

    That, dear heart, leaves Clinton only.

    Now, if the author made a mistake and didn't name GHWB, then GHWB and Bubba aka William Jefferson Clinton was involved.

    Also, see Jeralyn's comment at 11:40PM.


    Nor do I believe the government (none / 0) (#3)
    by scribe on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 07:42:26 AM EST
    when they assert "they didn;t listen to the calls" but limited themselves to just calling patterns and email addresses.

    Frankly, any analyst worth their paycheck would tell their boss that, of course, listening to the content would vastly help us find the bad guys because we could sort out all the grandkids' calls to Grandma Martha right off and concentrate on the traffickers.

    That, and since they're already in lawbreaking for a penny, it doesn't really break the law any further for them to listen to the content.

    One is compelled to wonder just how many cases have been infected by or, worse, generated by this lawbreaking.

    shouldn't those on the gov't end (none / 0) (#4)
    by cpinva on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 08:45:10 AM EST
    of this also be held to account? they broke the law as well, from the top guy all the way down to the GS-13 analyst "just following orders".

    frankly, given the facts and circumstances, qwest's refusal to enter into the secret contracts, and their accountant's analysis of projected earnings and profits, i'm not exactly clear on how this helps nacchio's case.

    being overly optimistic is one thing, deluding yourself, all evidence to the contrary, is something else entirely. convincing yourself of something, to rationalize your acts, isn't the same as having a legitimate basis for that conviction.

    Here's how it works, CP: (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by scribe on Sun Dec 16, 2007 at 09:16:27 AM EST
    1.  NSA, 2001, to Nacchio: "We have some contracts for your company, QWest.  They are highly classified, so much so that you cannot tell your CFO and others about it.  But, they are similar to something (only) you and QWest have done before, so they're not a big deal.  They are also quite lucrative."
    2.  Nacchio, 2001, to self:  There are gov't contracts worth "X" to QWest which have been promised QWest by NSA.  I can't talk about them because they're classified, and I cannot even let the CFO in on it - the CFO isn't cleared because they're so sensitive.  But, when I make my projections, I can include them.  In fact, if I don't include them, I'd likely be liable for understating projected revenues.
    3.  Nacchio, 2001, to NSA:  "Ok.  We're in.  Let's do this work."
    4.  Nacchio, 2001, to CFO and QWest:  "The projections are this.  I know they're higher than you might think, but I know better.  We can make them."
    5.  NSA, 2001, to Nacchio:  "We need QWest to do a different job.  This is what it is, and it's top secret."
    5a.  NSA, 2001, to competitors of QWest:  "We need you to do a different job.  This is what it is, and it's top secret."
    6.  Nacchio to NSA, 2001: "The job you ask in #5 cannot be done if I and QWest are to stay within the bounds of the crimial law."
    6a.  Competitors of QWest to NSA, 2001: "Re The job you ask in #5, 'OK.  Here's what you wanted.'"
    7.  NSA, 2001, to self:  "Give those secret
    contracts in #1 to entities other than QWest."
    1.  NSA, 2001, to Nacchio re #3 above:  Silence.  
    2.  NSA, 2001, to QWest competitors:  Here's some secret contracts (the ones from #1 above).  Work hard, make profit.  
    3.  Without/because of not getting the secret contracts from #1 above, QWest fails to make Nacchio's projections.
    4.  Suits and Investigations against Nacchio re failure to make projections.
    5.  (Optional steps)
    a.  (1) SEC/DoJ to Nacchio:  "How did you come up with these projections?"
        (2) (A) Nacchio to SEC/DoJ:  "I can't tell you because it's classified."  or
            (B)  NAcchio to SEC/DoJ:  "Go talk to NSA."  If 2B, then (3)
        (3)  (A) SEC/DoJ to NSA:  "Whassup about Nacchio."
             (B) NSA to SEC/DoJ:  "Who?"  or
                 NSA to SEC/DoJ:  "He told you what?  That's baloney."
    13.  Competitors of QWest:  "Hmm. Pays to go along with NSA, even if it is a crime.  We'll go out and push for retroactive immunity."

    It may not be enough to win a case outright, and he'd never be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt (unless someone from NSA came in and said, yup, we retaliated against him by not giving him the contracts or ratting him out).  But, IMHO, the defense is enough to provide him with a solid argument for the jury finding reasonable doubt to acquit him.


    Clinton and wiretaps (none / 0) (#21)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Dec 17, 2007 at 12:40:59 AM EST
    From an article I wrote in 1996:

    On the eve of the first anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing in April, 1996, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The Democrats were very disappointed, however, because the bill passed without proposed expansions of wiretapping authority. In May 1996, Reps. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI) introduced H.R. 3409 "to combat domestic terrorism." The bill, titled the "Effective Anti-Terrorism Tools for Law Enforcement Act of 1996," would expand the powers granted to the FBI to engage in multi- point (roving) wiretaps and emergency wiretaps without court orders, and to access an individual's hotel and vehicle and storage facility rental records. It also relaxed the requirements for obtaining pen register and trap and trace orders in foreign intelligence investigations.

    A lesser known and far less advertised provision provides for the amendment of the statutory wiretap suppression remedy in 18 U.S.C. 2515. The Section now provides that evidence of intercepted communications may not be admitted in any criminal trial or hearing, or before a grand jury, if disclosure of the information would be in violation of the wiretap chapter. The amendment in H.R. 3409 provides that the suppression remedy in 2515 would not apply unless the violation involved "bad faith by law enforcement."

    In July 1996, following the Saudi bombing, the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Olympic park bombing, President Clinton asked Congress for immediate passage of the new anti-terrorism bill. There was also a renewed push to pass a bill to fund the Digital Telephony Act passed last Congress (the "Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act," PL 103- 414, commonly known as the "National Wiretap Plan").

    The Digital Telephony Act was introduced in 1994 at the request of the FBI, to allow the agency to increase its wiretapping capabilities. The Act requires communication companies to make their upgraded digital systems easier for federal agents to tap. Currently, the FBI can wiretap from copper wire phone lines, but not from fiber optic digital phone lines. The plan the Administration has devised would conscript the phone companies to build capability into their phone systems for the FBI to tap one percent of all phone calls made (one out of every one hundred calls). The cost would be a minimum of $500,000,000. Where would the money come from? Get this. According to the latest Administration terrorism proposals, it would come from the unspent funds at the end of the year of all federal agencies with law enforcement or intelligence responsibilities!

    ....July 31, 1996, President Clinton was still pleading for the bill's passage. The negotiators in Congress were deadlocked over the wiretap provisions!

    The conservative House Republicans came to the rescue. They demanded that new privacy safeguards be enacted as the price for any increased wiretapping authority, which would provide individuals with the right to sue individual law enforcement officers for wrongful collection of private information and increase the criminal penalties for such violations, as well as penalties for the wrongful disclosure of wiretap information. Their position was significantly enhanced by the recent acknowledgment by the White House of its improper procurement of hundreds of private and restricted FBI files.

    Late in the night of August 1, a House Republican agreement was reached. August 2, 1996, the House passed H.R. 3953, the "Aviation Security and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996." The law is a stripped-down version of its predecessor. The proposals for increased wiretap authority were excluded. The digital telephone funding provision was deleted. Instead, the bill actually enhances privacy safeguards under the Privacy Act and the wiretap laws, by increasing the penalties for illegal use of electronic surveillance information. H.R. 3953 adds terrorist offenses as RICO predicates. It directs the Secretary of State to proceed with the designation of foreign "terrorist organizations," as provided in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act enacted in April, 1996; and thereafter, directs the Secretary of the Treasury to accordingly freeze the assets of, and the Attorney General to initiate the removal of, known alien terrorists and criminals. The bill also establishes a National Commission on Terrorism to make reports to Congress; and directs a study on the feasibility of using taggants in black and smokeless powder.

    The fight is far from over. President Clinton and Hill leaders from both parties have promised to revive their push for expanding government wiretapping authority as soon as Congress resumes after Labor Day. August 2, Reps. Hyde (R-IL), Conyers (D-MI), Schumer (D-NY) and McCollum (R-FL), among others, introduced H.R. 3960, the "Anti-Terrorism Law Enforcement Enhancement Act of 1996."

    Simply put, this bill consists of the wiretap provisions excluded from the just-passed H.R. 3953! It expands multi-point wiretapping, provides increased emergency wiretap authority, and relaxes requirements for obtaining pen register and trap and trace orders in foreign counter surveillance investigations. It reduces the number of the progress reports the government is required to submit to the judge during a wiretap, from the typical number of one every ten days (or at any other interval, in the discretion of the judge overseeing the case at hand), to a single report after fifteen days. And it adds yet more offenses to the list of RICO predicates.

    So 11 years ago i (1.00 / 0) (#23)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Dec 17, 2007 at 08:38:54 AM EST
    it was the conservative Repubs who opposed expansion, now it is the Demo Left... Both groups were/are acting on politics rather than conviction.... Makes me glad to be an Independent.

    I remember the ability to access fiber optic cables requirement quite well. All the switch and transport manufacturers perked right up thinking of that...

    BTW - It isn't all that difficult to do from a technical view point. Get a yourself a 3/1 Crossconnect, groom the DS1 you want out to a 1/0, groom the DS0 to a digital to analog converter to the recording device, loop back to the converter to the 1/0 to the 3/1....

    What I can not figure out, and this makes me wonder about the accuracy of the base story, is that if you wanted to examine call patterns from/to another country all you need is the long distance billing information. That you get from the long distance carriers, not the local phone company... If you wanted to have the capability to recognize that A had called B from/to another country, and record the conversation, you would need more equipment, but you would still be at a POP, more accurately, at a Gateway switch..