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Context of '1990s: US Monitoring Domestic Phone Calls to Latin America; One Company Refuses to Cooperate'

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As part of its ongoing battle against drug trafficking, the US routinely monitors the phone records of thousands of US citizens and others inside the country who make phone calls to Latin America. The NSA works with the Drug Enforcement Agency in collecting phone records that show patterns of calls between the US, Latin America, and other drug-producing regions. The program is significantly expanded after George W. Bush takes office in 2001. Government officials will say in 2007 that the phone conversations themselves are not monitored, but the NSA and DEA use phone numbers and e-mail addresses to analyze possible links between US citizens and foreign nationals. The program is approved by Justice Department officials in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, and does not require court approval to demand communications records. In 2004, one US telecommunications firm, who is not identified, will refuse to turn over its phone records to the government (see 2004). [New York Times, 12/16/2007] The Bush administration will repeatedly claim that the government did not begin monitoring US citizens until after the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, this NSA/DEA program proves otherwise.

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, George W. Bush, Clinton administration, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (41)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Joseph Nacchio.Joseph Nacchio. [Source: publicity photo via Business Week]Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio meets with NSA officials in Fort Meade, Maryland, to discuss two topics of mutual interest: a $100 million infrastructure upgrade that Qwest, one of the US’s largest telecommunications firms, can perform for the agency, and another topic that remains classified. (The meeting will be revealed in heavily redacted court documents released six years later—see October 12, 2007). Observers believe the discussion is about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program of US citizens, which the government will conceal for years (see December 15, 2005), and which the Bush administration will insist did not come about until after the 9/11 attacks (see December 17, 2005). Nacchio meets with NSA officials to discuss the agency’s “Groundbreaker” project (see February 2001), which the NSA will later claim is merely a modernization and upgrade of its technological infrastructure. A June 2006 lawsuit against AT&T over that firm’s cooperation with the NSA alleges that “Groundbreaker” is part of a secret domestic surveillance operation. According to the court documents, Nacchio and the NSA are unable to agree on an unrevealed topic of discussion; after that disagreement, the NSA will withdraw its “Groundbreaker” contract from consideration for Qwest. Nacchio, according to the documents, believes that the unrevealed topic of discussion involves illegal and inappropriate actions. He asks the agency officials whether “a warrant or other legal process had been secured.” The NSA officials, according to the documents, have a “disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process,” leading Nacchio to conclude that “the requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act.” When Nacchio refuses to cooperate with the NSA, the agency withdraws its offer of the “Groundbreaker” contract. [Raw Story, 10/12/2007; Marketwatch, 10/13/2007] James F.X. Payne, the former chief of Qwest’s government business unit, will later tell investigators, “There was a feeling also that the NSA acted as agents for other government agencies.” [National Journal, 11/2/2007] In 2007, the New York Times will reveal that Qwest refuses to give the NSA access to its most localized communications switches, carrying largely domestic phone calls. The arrangement would have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order. [New York Times, 12/16/2007] The NSA has more success with other companies—and has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Qwest as well (see February 2001).

Entity Tags: Qwest, New York Times, James F.X. Payne, Bush administration (43), AT&T, Joe Nacchio, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An unidentified US telecommunications firm refuses to turn over its phone records to the government as part of a joint program by the NSA and the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat Latin American drug-trafficking that has been going on since the 1990s (see 1990s). The firm believes the administrative subpoenas issued for its information by the Justice Department are overly broad, and that it fears the public relations and legal backlashes it might suffer if the public were to learn of its cooperation. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, US Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, writes an op-ed for the New York Times pushing for Congressional immunity for US telecommunications firms over their cooperation with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Under August’s Protect America Act, McConnell writes, the country is “safer” from terrorist attacks while the privacy of US citizens is protected (see August 5, 2007). The government has “greater understanding of international [al-]Qaeda networks, and the law has allowed us to obtain significant insight into terrorist planning.” But the Act expires in two months, and McConnell wants it re-enacted and significantly expanded “if we are to stay ahead of terrorists who are determined to attack the United States.” Echoing the arguments of Bush administration officials, McConnell attacks the “outdated” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as significantly hindering the government’s “ability to collect timely foreign intelligence.” McConnell complains: “Our experts were diverted from tracking foreign threats to writing lengthy justifications to collect information from a person in a foreign country, simply to satisfy an outdated statute that did not reflect the ways our adversaries communicate. The judicial process intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans was applied instead to foreign intelligence targets in foreign countries. This made little sense, and the Protect America Act eliminated this problem.” McConnell calls for new legislation that would obviate the need for intelligence agencies such as the NSA to seek warrants to monitor US citizens’ telephone and e-mail communications: “The intelligence community should spend its time protecting our nation, not providing privacy protections to foreign terrorists and other diffuse international threats.” He also calls for retroactive immunity for “private parties”—i.e. the US telecommunications companies—that are subject to lawsuits over their cooperation with the NSA in monitoring US communications. “The intelligence community cannot go it alone,” he writes. “Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits.” Two days later, new Attorney General Michael Mukasey will write a virtually identical op-ed for the Los Angeles Times (see December 12, 2007). [New York Times, 12/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Bush administration (43), Mike McConnell, New York Times, Protect America Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Michael Mukasey, the new Attorney General, writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times pushing for Congressional immunity for US telecommunications firms over their cooperation with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Mukasey supports the NSA program, echoing the administration’s long insistence that the surveillance program is “crucial” in protecting the country against terrorist attacks. He also reiterates the administration’s criticism of the “outdated” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which he says hampers the government’s ability to collect needed intelligence and does little to protect the privacy of US citizens. Mukasey calls for Congress to pass a Senate bill that would grant the telecommunications firms retroactive immunity to civil lawsuits and criminal charges surrounding their cooperation with the NSA, and would no longer require court orders for the government to “direct surveillance at foreign targets overseas”—surveillance that would target US citizens. Mukasey says the US will “need the full-hearted help of private companies in our intelligence activities; we cannot expect such cooperation to be forthcoming if we do not support companies that have helped us in the past.” Mukasey strongly opposes another Senate bill that would grant no immunity and would continue to require the government to obtain FISA Court warrants before wiretapping domestic communications. Two days earlier, the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, penned a virtually identical op-ed for the New York Times (see December 10, 2007). [Los Angeles Times, 12/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Bush administration (43), Los Angeles Times, Michael Mukasey, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Bush administration begins a push to get Congress to pass legislation to protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits over their assistance with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. This is part of the administration’s long and sometimes uneasy partnership with the telecom industry to conduct a wide range of secret anti-terrorism surveillance operations. The firms fear further lawsuits and more public exposure, and some have refused outright to cooperate (see February 27, 2001 and 1990s).
Fiber Optics - Twenty years ago, the NSA had little difficulty in monitoring telephone communications because older technology relied on broadcast signals carried by microwave towers and satellite relays; the agency used its own satellite dishes to cull the signals. But fiber optic communications are much more difficult to tap, forcing the agency to seek the cooperation of the telecoms to monitor their signals.
Relationship - “It’s a very frayed and strained relationship right now, and that’s not a good thing for the country in terms of keeping all of us safe,” says an industry official in favor of immunity for the telecoms. “This episode has caused companies to change their conduct in a variety of ways.” Both the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, and the new Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, write virtually identical op-eds in recent days calling for passage of legislation to grant immunity to the telecoms and remove the need to obtain warrants to wiretap Americans’ communications (see December 10, 2007 and December 12, 2007).
Two Bills - Currently, two bills are before Congress: one largely crafted by Republicans and passed on by the Senate Intelligence Committee that would grant retroactive immunity to the telecoms, and another from the House Judiciary Committee that would not. The White House says President Bush will veto any legislation that does not grant immunity to the telecoms. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]

Entity Tags: Mike McConnell, Bush administration (43), Center for National Security Studies, Michael Mukasey, National Security Agency, Senate Intelligence Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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