NSA,Telecoms Have Long History of Ties

A report that telecom firms may have given the National Security Agency access to millions of phone records might be much ado about old news. Phone companies have had a close relationship for decades with the NSA and law-enforcement agencies.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Over the last week, there's been a lot of attention to reports the National Security Agency has had access to the phone records of millions of Americans. Since those reports emerged, several of the phone companies have denied cooperating with the intelligence agency.

But NPR's Allison Keyes tells us there's a long history of collaboration between communication companies and the government.

(Soundbite of Morse code)

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Since the early 1900s, when telegrams were still a popular way to send messages, communications companies have had what John Pike calls a cozy relationship with the government. Pike runs GlobalSecurity.org.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Throughout the 20th century, the phone companies and the various communications intercept agencies here in the United States have worked together fairly closely.

KEYES: Intelligence historian Matthew Aid says the U.S. Army first began obtaining copies of all foreign government cables coming in and out of the country in 1917, the year America entered World War One. That authority came from President Woodrow Wilson, who had imposed tight communications restrictions. Aid says when the war ended a year later, the Army wanted to continue collecting signals intelligence.

Mr. MATTHEW AID (Intelligence Historian): The Army went to the cable companies and asked them, as a patriotic duty, to provide the U.S. government with copies of all foreign government cables coming and out of the United States. And the companies complied.

KEYES: Matthew Aid says the U.S. won a significant diplomatic victory in the 1920s, thanks to surreptitiously obtained cables. It involved a peace conference to decide the size of the world's navies.

Mr. AID: What the U.S. Army's code-breaking agency was able to do was break the naval codes used by the Japanese government. This allowed the United States to sort of hem the Japanese in and get them to accept a lower number for the number of battleships that the Japanese wanted to operate.

KEYES: That relationship with the cable companies ended in the late 1920s. In the 1934, the Communications Act was passed, which put in protections against accessing wire communications. Athan Theoharis is a history professor and FBI expert at Marquette University.

Professor ATHAN THEOHARIS (History, Marquette University): So you had this concern in the 1930s about quote "Big Brother," which is part of this regulation in the communications industry; there was this ban on the interception and divulgence of messages transmitted by wire.

KEYES: That ban also applied to the FBI, Theoharis says. At the time, the FBI was broadening its scope from strictly law enforcement to intelligence, and beginning to monitor domestic Fascist and Communist movements. President Roosevelt issued a secret directive in 1940 authorizing national defense wiretaps, on the condition that any such tap must be submitted to the U.S. Attorney General for approval.

Censorship during World War Two gave the Army free access to all cables coming into and out of the country. But historian Matthew Aid says the communications companies continued to secretly provide them to the government after the war ended in 1945.

Since the National Security Agency was created in 1952, it has worked closely with the phone companies. At first, they provided cables to the Foreign Intelligence Agency. Throughout the Cold War, the NSA monitored cables coming from overseas to members of the Communist Party based in the U.S. And it monitored cables coming in from Cuba.

Since September 11th, the Bush administration authorized a domestic surveillance program which may have put the NSA and the phone companies in even closer contact. John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org says this may signal a new standard in the relationship between intelligence agencies and the phone companies.

Mr. PIKE: If the NSA rules, or the new and improved post-September 11th rules for communications monitoring, then possibly all these other government agencies are going to have a new and improved set of rules about the information that they can collect and retain.

KEYES: Since much of the intelligence gathering is classified, it may be a long time before we know what those rules are.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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