NSA Wraps Private Firms into Intel Efforts

The domestic spying program revealed by The New York Times depended on the cooperation of the nation's telecom companies. But it's certainly not the first time the National Security Agency has used the private sector.

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The domestic government surveillance program revealed by The New York Times reportedly depends on the cooperation of the nation's telecommunications companies. This isn't the first time the National Security Agency has turned to the private sector, but as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the digital age has made the government more dependent on private companies than ever.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The NSA's collaboration with American telecom companies goes back to the agency's early days after the second world war. Back then, the NSA's technical ability to monitor phone and telegraph traffic was limited, so the government asked companies like Western Union to join Operation Shamrock. According to James Bamford, who's written two books about the NSA, the telegraph companies agreed to hand over copies of every telegram every day.

Mr. JAMES BAMFORD (Author): So at midnight every night, somebody from NSA would go over to the telecommunications company and they would give them all the tape journals of all the telegrams that day from Western Union.

ABRAMSON: As communications moved to satellites, the NSA's access improved. Massive antenna arrays could snatch international phone traffic out of the skies. But James Bamford says the digital age has thrown a wrench into the process.

Mr. BAMFORD: One of the problems NSA has is that a lot of the international telecommunications is switching from satellites to undersea fiber-optic cables.

ABRAMSON: Those cables have tremendous capacity. They're more reliable than satellite communications and they're also harder to tap. The NSA can send a submarine down to do the job, but analysts say it's easier to turn to the phone companies. According to reports in The New York Times, the government asked telecom executives for access to massive switches that handle international phone and Internet traffic. Now the phone industry gets wiretap requests all the time. Law Professor Peter Swire notes that CALEA, The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, requires technical cooperation.

Professor PETER SWIRE (Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University): CALEA says the phone companies have to be able to comply with lawful court orders. They have to set up their networks to be wiretap ready. CALEA does not say the phone companies are supposed to do illegal wiretaps or facilitate massive surveillance without court orders.

ABRAMSON: In fact, the USA Patriot Act protects telecom providers from lawsuits if there's a warrant from the special court that authorizes national security wiretaps. But many legal scholars think the phone companies should face liability if they allow wiretaps without such warrants.

One big question about the surveillance program has been just how much was the NSA scooping up. The agency is known for vacuuming up all the overseas communications it can get its hands on, analyzing it and then forwarding the information on to some other agency. Phil Karn, a telecommunications and Internet engineer, says if the NSA has turned its ears to domestic surveillance, the agency could be quickly overwhelmed by the colossal amount of voice traffic.

Mr. PHIL KARN (Telecommunications Engineer): Because they still don't have, as far as we know, the technology to listen to all that voice and turn it into a transcript and then scan that transcript for keywords. As far as we know, our best guess is they still have to hire human linguists to sit there and listen to it and translate it, and that's a very slow and error-prone process.

ABRAMSON: Karn says the NSA would find it easier to search through all the Internet traffic, since text is easier to search, or the agency could have been analyzing who's calling whom without listening to the content. Either task is more manageable and the legal standard for obtaining that kind of information is lower. But the administration apparently decided not to seek any sort of court order.

Just as the NSA turned to phone companies for warrantless eavesdropping, the government has been turning to the private sector for access to other information. The Patriot Act lowered the threshold for those requests. Susan Hackett of the Association of Corporate Counsel says many businesses feel they're being asked to participate in government fishing expeditions.

Ms. SUSAN HACKETT (Association of Corporate Counsel): They aren't related to a specific event or a specific individual that's being investigated and may be requests for information that is ongoing, that is basically requiring the company to become the surveillance arm of the government.

ABRAMSON: That's why many mainstream businesses are pushing for Patriot Act reform so the government will face a higher standard before courts approve such warrants. The companies that reportedly participated in the NSA program apparently decided the risk of liability was one they were willing to take, especially if the government was convinced the surveillance program was legal. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: A quick update now on the other major story we're keeping an eye on, the condition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Doctors in Jerusalem say he's heavily sedated and on a respirator after undergoing seven hours of surgery last night. Sharon had a massive stroke and doctors had to operate to stop widespread bleeding in his brain. Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert, has assumed the powers of the prime minister and today he said that the elections scheduled for March will go ahead as planned.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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