ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This week, Congress is considering changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Among other things, the proposed bill would grant immunity to telephone companies that helped the National Security Agency intercept phone calls and e-mail after 9/11. There are several lawsuits challenging the legality of what the phone companies did.
A key witness against AT&T is Mark Klein. He was the technician at AT&T in San Francisco who came forward in 2006 with information about how the company had helped the NSA. He is retired now and he's in Washington to urge Congress not to grant the telecom's immunity. And he joins us in the studio. Welcome…
Mr. MARK KLEIN (Former Technician, AT&T): Thank you.
SIEGEL: …to the program, Mr. Klein. First of all, take us back to 2003. What did you learn about what was happening at AT&T and how did you learn it?
Mr. KLEIN: Well, just to step back a bit. I had a hint that the NSA was doing something in 2002 when an agent of theirs arrived at our office to interview a management technician for a secret job, which, of course, we didn't know what it was about. But gradually, over the weeks, we found that they were building a secret installation at Folsom Street, which is the final office I arrived at.
SIEGEL: And the specifics were?
Mr. KLEIN: Well, I was assigned to the Internet room and I had my hands on the equipment and the fiber optic cables, and I had documents showing how things were wired up. And I discovered that they had tapped into the main fiber optic cables, which carry all the Internet traffic going through the office. And I found that the traffic was being copied in its entirety to the secret room.
SIEGEL: Its entirety, you mean - to give us some sense of the volume of information that was being covered, what are you talking about?
Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. Well, these - the biggest of these fiber optic cables carries 2.5 gigabits per second, which amounts to about a quarter of an Encyclopedia Britannica every second.
SIEGEL: And all of that was being copied from AT&T's facility, copy going straight to NSA.
Mr. KLEIN: Right. That was one of the things that bothered me right off the bat. I should say, by the way, it's not just AT&T's traffic going through these cables, because these cables connected AT&T's network with other networks like Sprint, Qwest, Global Crossing, UUNet, and so forth. And what bothered me was that the physical setup was these cables went through what they called a splitter. And the splitter is a very dumb device and it just copies the entire data stream without any selection going on. So it's a complete copy of the data stream.
SIEGEL: And you were bothered by this?
Mr. KLEIN: Yes. It didn't seem to me to be legal or constitutional for the government to just grab everything. My understanding of a legal warrant is a warrant has to be specific, and this was not the old-style warrant where they come in and they ask for the - tap on person's phone line. This was just a tap on the entire Internet.
SIEGEL: Some would say - people I guess favor telecom immunity here, would say, well maybe the NSA exceeded its brief, maybe not. But it was the NSA that was doing it, and not the telephone company.
Mr. KLEIN: Well, the NSA came in and asked for these companies to do something which they had to know was illegal. They had decades of experience in wiretapping and they had to know that this request was massively illegal and the fact that Qwest turned down the request of the NSA for this kind of stuff…
SIEGEL: So far, as we know, the only telephone company that did.
KLEIN: That's right. Qwest turned it down because he didn't think there was any documentation there that was legal. And they did the right thing. So that indicated that the others did something a lot less then what Qwest did, they didn't look for the legal documentation.
SIEGEL: Should the telephone companies - in your view, should they help the government at all in these instances?
KLEIN: Well, I can understand an emergency where there might be life and limb in danger. But this is not any longer an emergency. This has gone on for six years now. It's a permanent installation.
SIEGEL: What do you make of the argument that in order to do what people describe as data mining, you get that massive amount of Internet and e-mail traffic, and then once the computer, without seeing the content of barely anything that's in there, finds a few patterns that are interesting, a few connections…
SIEGEL: …then you can look at those and technically, that's the way you would have a narrowed search.
KLEIN: Well, one of the things I discovered in the documents I looked at was the list of equipment they're using. And one of them is odd to be in a telecommunications office. It's called a Narus STA 6400. STA stands for semantic traffic analyzer. It looks at content. It doesn't just look at addresses and where it's coming from and where it's going to, or do pattern analysis. It looks at content and selects out on the basis of the content.
SIEGEL: The secret room that you learned in San Francisco, was it unique to your knowledge at AT&T?
KLEIN: No. I learned in the process of looking into this that there are similar NSA installations in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle and the documents mentioned Atlanta. And after looking at the documents…
SIEGEL: The documents are from AT&T.
KLEIN: AT&T documents, that they probably have 15 to 20 rooms across the country.
SIEGEL: Dozens of people…
SIEGEL: …who work for AT&T who could describe - you take and described to us what you saw happening in San Francisco.
KLEIN: That's right. That's right. But you want to think twice or three times before you go out by yourself up against a big corporation plus the federal government, right? So…
SIEGEL: You thought twice or three times about what it is.
KLEIN: Yes, of course.
SIEGEL: What did you think about? What was that process like, siding with the public?
KLEIN: Well, I was thinking I want - if I want to do this, I want to have some allies on my side and who would I go to, and would media believe me if I walked in the door of The New York Times on Sunday? Who am I, right? Who would believe me? I felt the situation was better when The New York Times revealed part of it because that gave me somewhat more credibility to…
SIEGEL: They revealed it without any - without talking to you?
KLEIN: Without talking to me. I had no connection to that. And there's a story. But the point is they made it more believable that there's some illegal government surveillance program going on.
SIEGEL: What for you - what's - as you had seen, what's for all of us riding on the lawsuits against the telephone companies?
KLEIN: American people would generally - it has not sunk in as to what, how broad and how deep the surveillance is. The White House has repeatedly and often successfully tried to portray this as just a very small, narrow program focused on a handful of bad people who were making phone calls to the Middle East. And what's really going on in the nature of equipment is they're looking at millions of Americans' communications, domestic communications. And that's a whole another kettle of fish and not constitutional.
SIEGEL: Well, Mark Klein, thank you very much for talking with us today.
KLEIN: Glad to be with you. Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician who has described how AT&T passed information to the National Security Agency in San Francisco.
We called AT&T for comment and they gave us the following statement. AT&T is fully committed to protecting our customers' privacy. We do not comment on matters of national security.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.