Originally published at the NYTimes by By Julia Angwin, Charlie Savage, Jeff Larson, Henrik Moltke, Laura Poitras and James Risen on 8/15/15
The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.
While it has been long known that American telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, newly disclosed N.S.A. documents show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”
AT&T’s cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.
The N.S.A.’s top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership was more than twice that of the next-largest such program, according to the documents. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than its similarly sized competitor, Verizon. And its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.
One document reminds N.S.A. officials to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities, noting, “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”
Newly Disclosed N.S.A. Files Detail Partnerships With AT&T and Verizon
These National Security Agency documents shed new light on the agency’s relationship through the years with American telecommunications companies. They show how the agency’s partnership with AT&T has been particularly important, enabling it to conduct surveillance, under several different legal rules, of international and foreign-to-foreign Internet communications that passed through network hubs on American soil. The documents come from the archive provided by the former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden. The files do not identify the firms by name, but instead refer to the Fairview and Stormbrew programs, An analysis by The New York Times and ProPublica found a constellation of evidence that AT&T was the Fairview partner and Verizon was part of the Stormbrew program. The documents range from 2003 to 2013; it is not clear whether the arrangements are the same today.
The documents, provided by the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, were jointly reviewed by The New York Times and ProPublica. The N.S.A., AT&T and Verizon declined to discuss the findings from the files. “We don’t comment on matters of national security,” an AT&T spokesman said.
It is not clear if the programs still operate in the same way today. Since the Snowden revelations set off a global debate over surveillance two years ago, some Silicon Valley technology companies have expressed anger at what they characterize as N.S.A. intrusions and have rolled out new encryption to thwart them. The telecommunications companies have been quieter, though Verizon unsuccessfully challenged a court order for bulk phone records in 2014.
At the same time, the government has been fighting in court to keep the identities of its telecom partners hidden. In a recent case, a group of AT&T customers claimed that the N.S.A.’s tapping of the Internet violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. This year, a federal judge dismissed key portions of the lawsuit after the Obama administration argued that public discussion of its telecom surveillance efforts would reveal state secrets, damaging national security.
The N.S.A. documents do not identify AT&T or other companies by name. Instead, they refer to corporate partnerships run by the agency’s Special Source Operations division using code names. The division is responsible for more than 80 percent of the information the N.S.A. collects, one document states.
Fairview is one of its oldest programs. It began in 1985, the year after antitrust regulators broke up the Ma Bell telephone monopoly and its long-distance division became AT&T Communications. An analysis of the Fairview documents by The Times and ProPublica reveals a constellation of evidence that points to AT&T as that program’s partner. Several former intelligence officials confirmed that finding.
A Fairview fiber-optic cable, damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, was repaired on the same date as a Japanese-American cable operated by AT&T. Fairview documents use technical jargon specific to AT&T. And in 2012, the Fairview program carried out the court order for surveillance on the Internet line, which AT&T provides, serving the United Nations headquarters. (N.S.A. spying on United Nations diplomats has previously been reported, but not the court order or AT&T’s involvement. In October 2013, the United States told the United Nations that it would not monitor its communications.)
The documents also show that another program, code-named Stormbrew, has included Verizon and the former MCI, which Verizon purchased in 2006. One describes a Stormbrew cable landing that is identifiable as one that Verizon operates. Another names a contact person whose LinkedIn profile says he is a longtime Verizon employee with a top-secret clearance.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, AT&T and MCI were instrumental in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping programs, according to a draft report by the N.S.A.’s inspector general. The report, disclosed by Mr. Snowden and previously published by The Guardian, does not identify the companies by name but describes their market share in numbers that correspond to those two businesses, according to Federal Communications Commission reports.
AT&T began turning over emails and phone calls “within days” after the warrantless surveillance began in October 2001, the report indicated. By contrast, the other company did not start until February 2002, the draft report said.
In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed N.S.A. documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the N.S.A. said amounted to a “ ‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. Stormbrew was still gearing up to use the new technology, which appeared to process foreign-to-foreign traffic separate from the post-9/11 program.
In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.
That year, one slide presentation shows, the N.S.A. spent $188.9 million on the Fairview program, twice the amount spent on Stormbrew, its second-largest corporate program.
After The Times disclosed the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program in December 2005, plaintiffs began trying to sue AT&T and the N.S.A. In a 2006 lawsuit, a retired AT&T technician named Mark Klein claimed that three years earlier, he had seen a secret room in a company building in San Francisco where the N.S.A. had installed equipment.
Mr. Klein claimed that AT&T was providing the N.S.A. with access to Internet traffic that AT&T transmits for other telecom companies. Such cooperative arrangements, known in the industry as “peering,” mean that communications from customers of other companies could end up on AT&T’s network.
After Congress passed a 2008 law legalizing the Bush program and immunizing the telecom companies for their cooperation with it, that lawsuit was thrown out. But the newly disclosed documents show that AT&T has provided access to peering traffic from other companies’ networks.
AT&T’s “corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s,” or Internet service providers, one 2013 N.S.A. document states.
Because of the way the Internet works, intercepting a targeted person’s email requires copying pieces of many other people’s emails, too, and sifting through those pieces. Plaintiffs have been trying without success to get courts to address whether copying and sifting pieces of all those emails violates the Fourth Amendment.
Many privacy advocates have suspected that AT&T was giving the N.S.A. a copy of all Internet data to sift for itself. But one 2012 presentation says the spy agency does not “typically” have “direct access” to telecoms’ hubs. Instead, the telecoms have done the sifting and forwarded messages the government believes it may legally collect.
“Corporate sites are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to N.S.A.,” according to the presentation. This system sometimes leads to “delays” when the government sends new instructions, it added.
The companies’ sorting of data has allowed the N.S.A. to bring different surveillance powers to bear. Targeting someone on American soil requires a court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When a foreigner abroad is communicating with an American, that law permits the government to target that foreigner without a warrant. When foreigners are messaging other foreigners, that law does not apply and the government can collect such emails in bulk without targeting anyone.
AT&T’s provision of foreign-to-foreign traffic has been particularly important to the N.S.A. because large amounts of the world’s Internet communications travel across American cables. AT&T provided access to the contents of transiting email traffic for years before Verizon began doing so in March 2013, the documents show. They say AT&T gave the N.S.A. access to “massive amounts of data,” and by 2013 the program was processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day.
Because domestic wiretapping laws do not cover foreign-to-foreign emails, the companies have provided them voluntarily, not in response to court orders, intelligence officials said. But it is not clear whether that remains the case after the post-Snowden upheavals.
“We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence,” Brad Burns, an AT&T spokesman, said. He declined to elaborate.
Correction: August 15, 2015
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the number of emails the National Security Agency has gotten access to with the cooperation of AT&T. As the article correctly noted, it is in the billions, not trillions.
Originally published at Counterpunch by Norman Pollack on 8/21/15
Surveillance, the American Way: NSA-AT&T Cohabitation
The convergence of power against the ordinary citizen, here via the interpenetration of government and the telecommunications industry, a collapsing of the public and private spheres of authority (it doesn’t matter which of the two seizes the initiative, for what amounts to the privatization of repression under the aegis of the State), eviscerates/invalidates the existence of a democratic social order. The American Imperium wears no clothes, a condition at least a century in the making. The present, however, is perhaps worse than ever, from the standpoint of freedom of thought and expression, as witness, in passing, the clear rightward shift of the political spectrum in which both major parties field candidates stopping just this side of outright fascism.
Surveillance is not the cause of this ideological sameness of retrograde posturing, but certainly a contributing factor—one thinks twice knowing his/her emails and telephone conversations are being monitored and stored possibly awaiting further disposition. A society does not require standing armies when self-policing, circumspection, silence will do as well or better. The breadth of political-economic discussion, the entertainment of alternative visions, has shrunken to a point familiar to anyone living through the darkest days of McCarthyism—or rather, at least then one saw repression for what it was, whereas now repression has become so internalized that the internal checking of views is hardly noticed.
Is America a Police State? I think, yes. Not just in the ordinary sense, where authoritative racism is back in business and local police forces have become beneficiaries of the wider militarization of American culture and technology. For now emphasis is on coming at the people from all sides, like surround-around sound, a sweet narcotic of patriotism and the veneration of wealth (especially for those who don’t have it, yet must be encouraged to identify with those at the top if stability is to be maintained), a gentler more accommodating repression which leaves intact but unnoticed further trends toward wealth concentration, corporate rapaciousness, an ever-expanding appetite for global conquest, overt or through market-financial penetration. Each step down the primrose path of fascism necessitates a tightening of structure, an impelling urge toward social control, a fear of leaving any loose ends by which the populace can gain a self-consciousness of purpose. Not a million intercepts per day is sufficient, there must be more, there must be total control. Simply, surveillance on the scale practiced and hedged in by guarantees of impunity is, no other word will do, totalitarianism.
I have often criticized the New York Times for bedding down with status-quo political-institutional forces, instruments, practices in America, but on this occasion—and often on national-security reporting—the paper does itself proud, the reporters Julia Angwin, Charlie Savage, Jeff Larson, Henrik Moltke, Laura Poitras, and James Risen’s article, “AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale,” August 16, a devastating critique of private-public cooperation in the abridgment of free thought. AT&T as the showpiece of Corporate America makes its participation all the more symbolic of, and reaching down into, the militaristic core actuating the total society. (As a general proposition, toss in GM, IBM, Morgan Chase, etc. etc. and you have, in fact, US Inc., a hierarchical polity run on behalf of business and according to its principles, aka The Capitalist State, shorthand for the paradigm of German and Italian fascism.)
The Times article minces no words: “The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.” Newly disclosed NSA documents describe the relationship as “’highly collaborative’” and praised AT&T’s “’extreme willingness to help.’” No arm-twisting; even the UN falls within its purview, and also striking is the way AT&T has plowed through the interstices of the law to avoid prosecution: It “has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.”
AT&T is clearly hot to trot, NSA’s ‘top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership [being] more than twice that of the next-largest such program,” as “the company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil,” while, in addition, “its engineers were the first to try out new surveillances technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.” Veritably, a sublime marriage of like-parties consummated in Valhalla. The documents were provided by Edward Snowden and reviewed by The Times and ProPublica. When asked to discuss the findings, AT&T, speaking for itself, NSA, and Verizon, replied, “’We don’t comment on matters of national security.’” (Stonewalling, as found also in FISA Court decisions and up-and-down the ladder of repression.)
Obama, civil libertarian bar none, reveals his adeptness in utilizing the state secrets doctrine. Verizon “unsuccessfully challenged a court order for bulk phone records” last year; meanwhile, “the government has been fighting in court to keep the identities of its telecom partners hidden.” The reporters continue: “In a recent case, a group of AT&T customers claimed that the N.S.A.’s tapping of the Internet violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. This year, a federal judge dismissed key portions of the lawsuit after the Obama administration argued that public discussion of its telecom surveillance efforts would reveal state secrets, damaging national security.” One secret, I suspect, is fleshing out just what NSA’s Special Source Operations division is up to—Obamaen secretiveness choking off all vestiges of liberty.
As in any national policy driven by hubris (and ego-fulfilling fanaticism), it only gets worse. One NSA program, Fairview, begun in 1985, already established a partnership with AT&T, and led to surveillance on UN headquarters and, as I understand it, the content of the Japanese-American cable, which is operated by AT&T. Too, it played a major role in Bush’s warrantless wiretap program, only days after 9/11, and before others also jumped in. NSA praised it as providing “’a ‘live’ presence on the global net,’” and a decade later, in “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” AT&T was “handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day” to NSA. Not satisfied with such valiant service, AT&T went on to engage in “peering,” an industry term for supplying NSA with Internet traffic that it transmits for other telecom companies. In the words of one document: Its “corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s [Internet Service Providers].” As for foreign-to-foreign traffic, AT&T “gave the N.S.A. access to ‘massive amounts of data,’ and by 2013 the program was processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day.”
My New York Times Comment on the foregoing article, same date, follows:
So disheartening. One definition of fascism is the collapse, as here, between the public and private sectors, in effect a systemic removal of constitutional safeguards, e.g., the Fourth Amendment, on citizens’ right to privacy. Surveillance was expected in Nazi Germany, not in the Bush and Obama administrations.
A curtain is descending on American freedoms. The health of civil liberties, as when Zachariah Chafee and William O. Douglas defended them, is now long past. More dismal still, this appears to be an unchecked runaway process, neither NSA nor AT&T amenable to public standards and controls. (For those who still vilify Snowden, let this be a lesson.)
The cynicism and smugness of the representatives of government and business on this whole issue effectively raises the question: Is there still democracy in America. Surveillance and democracy do not mix; further, the cancer spreads to other institutions, notably the judiciary. Let Obama puff and preen about leadership; he has proven himself just another Heinrich Himmler. NSA should be abolished. The surveillance program should be abolished. A stockholders’ revolt of AT&T should throw out its corporate officers and those harmed by its policies have recourse to damages. Time to clean out the Augean stables, if America is to claim any constructive–let alone progressive–role in the world.