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BellSouth was a participant or observer in the following events:
The NSA asks Qwest, a major US telecommunications firm and a cutting-edge provider of high-tech wireless and Internet connectivity, to reveal information about its customers and their phone calls. Qwest’s CEO, Joe Nacchio, refuses after meeting with NSA officials and deciding that the program is illegal without court orders (see February 27, 2001). The NSA refuses to seek court authorization for its wiretaps and electronic surveillance. The NSA will renew its request from Qwest after the 9/11 attacks, and will also ask the firm to help it track suspected terrorists. Other telecommunications firms such as Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth, will comply with the NSA’s requests (see February 2001 and Beyond).
Fears of a 'Digital Pearl Harbor' - According to a former White House official, the NSA’s primary purpose before 9/11 is to watch for computer hackers and foreign-government agents trying to hack into the government’s computer information systems, particularly those within the Defense Department. Government officials fear a “digital Pearl Harbor” if hackers were ever to seize control of those systems or other key US infrastructures. The former official will say in 2007 that the NSA’s proposal to Qwest is, “Can you build a private version of Echelon and tell us what you see?” Echelon is the NSA’s enormous signals intelligence (SIGINT) network used by the agency and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain. Qwest is constructing a high-speed network for phone and Internet traffic, and the NSA wants Qwest to keep records of its customers’ transactions for it. The NSA, another source will say, wants to analyze call, e-mail, and other transmissions’ traffic patters for signs of suspicious activity. The White House official will say that telecom firms such as Qwest “have an enormous amount of intelligence-gathering” capability. They don’t have to target individual customers to “look for wacky behavior,” or “groups communicating with each other in strange patterns.” Such information could augment intelligence that the NSA and other agencies were gathering from other sources, and enable the NSA to collect the information it wants without violating laws prohibiting it and other intelligence agencies from directly gathering data on US citizens.
Ill Will from NSA - Nacchio’s refusal to go along with the NSA’s request garners it some ill will among the US intelligence community, the former White House official will say. Nacchio will contend that because of his refusal, the NSA denied Qwest a lucrative government contract. A former high-level intelligence official will add that other telecom companies had little problem agreeing to the NSA’s requests. Nacchio believes that the NSA’s request is illegal under the Telecommunications Act without court orders; the former White House official will acknowledge that it might violate the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. After 9/11, that law will be amended by the USA Patriot Act to give the government more room to monitor US citizens.
Qwest, Other Telecom Firms Cooperative with Other Agencies - Qwest is apparently less reluctant to share other information with the Pentagon. Qwest began sharing its technology and information as far back as 1997 (see 1997). In May 2001, Commerce Secretary Don Evans will tell the Senate Appropriations Committee that his department helped persuade Qwest to “share proprietory information with the Defense Department to evaluate the vulnerability of its network.” Qwest, which serves the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions of the country, covers the areas that house some of the military’s most important command-and-control facilities, including the US Strategic Command. In the 1990s, Qwest began actively pursuing contracts with the Defense Department to build more modern, private, secure networks for defense and intelligence agencies. [National Journal, 11/2/2007]
Meetings with Bush Officials - In court documents filed in 2006 to challenge his prosecution for insider trading and, in heavily redacted form, released to the public in 2007, Nacchio will indicate that telecom executives met frequently with Bush administration officials before 9/11, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, NSA Director Michael Hayden, and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. Many telecom firms are working closely with the government to develop highly classified operations, including joint networks to which the government will have unfettered access. The future director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, works with telecom firms to expand the cooperation between the telecom industry and the federal government. [Salon, 10/15/2007]
Entity Tags: Condoleezza Rice, US Department of Defense, Bush administration (43), Verizon Communications, AT&T, US Department of Commerce, Senate Appropriations Committee, US Strategic Command, BellSouth, Donald L. Evans, Echelon, Richard A. Clarke, Qwest, Mike McConnell, National Security Agency, Joe Nacchio, Paul Wolfowitz
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Verizon gives the NSA access from within its facilities. [Source: ReallyNews.com]AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth all cooperate with the NSA in monitoring US citizens’ phone and Internet communications (see October 2001). Qwest, however, refuses to cooperate (see February 27, 2001). Qwest officials are unsure that it is legal to hand over customer information to the government without court warrants. The firm’s refusal to participate in the program leaves a gaping hole in the NSA’s database, with the NSA only getting partial coverage of US citizens in the West and Northwest. Until recently, AT&T and other phone companies have routinely insisted on court warrants before turning over call data to government agencies, protocols growing out of the historical concerns of the Bell Telephone system for customer service and privacy. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union will say in 2006 that such insistence on court warrants was a bedrock principle of the Bell systems. “No court order, no customer information—period.” he says. “That’s how it was for decades.” The Bell system was also concerned with following the law, specifically the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits telephone companies from giving out such information without court orders. President Bush and other government officials will later say that his 2002 executive order allowing the NSA to wiretap American phones without warrants (see Early 2002) gives the telephone companies legal cover, but many legal experts and civil liberties groups disagree. After 9/11, the NSA approaches the four companies with offers to pay for US citizens’ call histories and for updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ phone habits. Three of the four agree to the NSA proposal, but again Qwest does not. An AT&T spokesman will say in May 2006, “We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.” BellSouth will say that the company “does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.” Verizon will add that the company acts “in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.” Neither AT&T nor Qwest will comment at all. [USA Today, 5/11/2006] The NSA asks Qwest to install monitoring equipment on its “Class 5” switching facilities, which monitor the most localized calls as well as some international traffic. The NSA claims it will only single out foreigners on Qwest’s network. In 2006, a government official will say that the CEO of Qwest, Joe Nacchio, misunderstood what the agency was asking. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]
Qwest Refuses to Cooperate - In 2006, sources will recall that at the time of the NSA requests, Nacchio is so disturbed by the idea of the NSA wiretapping phones without warrants, and is so unsure of what information would be collected and how it might be used, that he decides the company will not cooperate. The NSA tells Qwest and the other companies that not only would it compile and maintain data on US citizens’ phone habits, but it may well share that information with other US government agencies, including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. Indeed, the NSA shares what it calls “product” with other intelligence agencies, and perhaps with other governmental agencies. After Nacchio decides not to comply with the NSA’s request, the agency begins pressuring the firm, accusing it of threatening national security and implying that Qwest might not be eligible for future governmental contracts. When Qwest asks the NSA to take its proposal to the FISA Court (FISC), the agency refuses, making Qwest that much more dubious about the NSA operation, especially when NSA lawyers say they won’t take the proposal to FISC because that court “might not agree with them.” The NSA also refuses to ask for authorization from the attorney general’s office. Nacchio will leave Qwest under fire for allegedly misleading shareholders about the company’s financial prospects, but his successor, Richard Notebaert, continues to refuse to cooperate with the NSA. [USA Today, 5/11/2006; USA Today, 5/11/2006] Interestingly, by 2004 the Federal Communications Commission will list Qwest and Verizon as essentially the same company. [Federal Communications Commission, 12/10/2004]
Other Firms Deny Participation - In May 2006, after USA Today reports on the telecom firms’ participation in the surveillance (see May 11, 2006), both Verizon and BellSouth will deny providing the NSA with data on their customers, though they have previously acknowledged their cooperation (see February 5, 2006). A BellSouth spokesman will say, somewhat ingenuously, “We’re not aware of any database that NSA has, so we’re not aware of our customer information being there at all.” And Verizon conspicuously fails to mention possible data from MCI, the long-distance provider it has recently bought. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will say of the various companies’ participations, “The thing that concerns me is some [companies] said yes and some said no” when asked to participate. “If the government really thought this was legal and necessary, why let some say yes and some say no? It’s either legal and necessary, or it’s not.” [USA Today, 5/16/2006]
Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, Qwest, Richard Notebaert, Verizon Communications, National Security Agency, USA Today, George W. Bush, Joe Nacchio, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, BellSouth, Central Intelligence Agency, AT&T, Consumers Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Gene Kimmelman, Federal Communications Commission
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Former AT&T employee Mark Klein. [Source: PBS]The National Security Agency, as part of its huge, covert, and possibly illegal wiretapping program directed at US citizens (see Spring 2001 and After September 11, 2001), begins collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by telecommunications firms such as AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth (see February 5, 2006). The media will not report on this database until May 2006 (see May 11, 2006). The program collects information on US citizens not suspected of any crime or any terrorist connections. Although informed sources say the NSA is not listening to or recording actual conversations, the agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity. “It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” says one anonymous source. The NSA intends “to create a database of every call ever made.” As a result, the NSA has detailed records of the phone activities of tens of millions of US citizens, from local calls to family and friends to international calls. The three telecommunications companies are working with the NSA in part under the Communications Assistance Act for Law Enforcement (CALEA) (see January 1, 1995 and June 13, 2006) and in part under contract to the agency.
Surveillance Much More Extensive Than Acknowledged - The wiretapping program, which features electronic surveillance of US citizens without court warrants or judicial oversight, is far more extensive than anything the White House or the NSA has ever publicly acknowledged. President Bush will repeatedly insist that the NSA focuses exclusively on monitoring international calls where one of the call participants is a known terrorist suspect or has a connection to terrorist groups (see December 17, 2005 and May 11, 2006), and he and other officials always insist that domestic calls are not monitored. This will be proven false. The NSA has become expert at “data mining,” sifting through reams of information in search of patterns. The warrantless wiretapping database is one source of information for the NSA’s data mining. As long as the NSA does not collect “personal identifiers”—names, Social Security numbers, street addresses, and the like—such data mining is legal. But the actual efficacy of the wiretapping program in learning about terrorists and possibly preventing terrorist attacks is unclear at best. And many wonder if the NSA is not repeating its activities from the 1950s and 1960s, when it conducted “Operation Shamrock” (see 1945-1975), a 20-year program of warrantless wiretaps of international phone calls at the behest of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Operation Shamrock, among other things, led to the 1978 passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). [USA Today, 5/11/2006] In May 2006, former NSA director Bobby Ray Inman will say, “[T]his activity is not authorized” (see May 12, 2006). [Democracy Now!, 5/12/2006]
Secret Data Mining Center - In May 2006, retired AT&T technician Mark Klein, a 22-year veteran of the firm, will file a court affidavit saying that he saw the firm construct a secret data-mining center in its San Francisco switching center that would let the NSA monitor domestic and international communications (see January 2003). And former AT&T workers say that, as early as 2002, AT&T has maintained a secret area in its Bridgeton, Missouri, facility that is likely being used for NSA surveillance (see Late 2002-Early 2003).
Domestic Surveillance Possibly Began Before 9/11 - Though Bush officials admit to beginning surveillance of US citizens only after the 9/11 attacks, some evidence indicates that the domestic surveillance program began some time before 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, and July 2001).
Entity Tags: Terrorist Surveillance Program, Verizon Communications, Mark Klein, George W. Bush, AT&T, BellSouth, Central Intelligence Agency, Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Qwest, National Security Agency
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Narus logo. [Source: Endace (.com)]Narus, a firm which manufactures telecommunications hardware, co-sponsors a technical conference in McLean, Virginia, titled “Intelligence Support Systems for Lawful Interception and Internet Surveillance.” As AT&T engineer Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009) will later write: “Police officials, FBI and DEA agents, and major telecommunications companies eager to cash in on the ‘war on terror’ had gathered in the hometown of the CIA to discuss their special problems. Among the attendees were AT&T, BellSouth, MCI, Sprint, and Verizon. Narus founder Dr. Ori Cohen gave a keynote speech.” Also speaking at the conference is William Crowley, the former deputy director of the National Security Agency (NSA). Narus is providing some of the key hardware components used in the NSA’s domestic surveillance program (see January 16, 2004). [PBS Frontline, 5/15/2007; Klein, 2009, pp. 39]
F. Duane Ackerman. [Source: Mark Wilson / Getty Images]The National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC), created in September 1982 by then-president Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12382, [National Communications System, 7/19/2006] is apparently facilitating US telecommunication firms’ cooperation with the NSA in conducting surveillance against US citizens. According to journalist Tim Shorrock, NSTAC, which he calls “kind of a murky organization [that] meets twice a year with people at the White House,” advises the White House on national security issues involving the telecommunications system. Vice President Dick Cheney participated in their most recent meeting. NSTAC is chaired by F. Duane Ackerman, the president and CEO of BellSouth, and is made up of executives from a number of telecom companies and other companies that are involved in telecommunications, including Verizon. Shorrock observes, “[T]hey all contract with the intelligence community to do various kinds of work, and, you know, they brag about it in their testimony. They say, you know, ‘We have a long record of cooperation with intelligence,’ and so on. So, these relationships go back many, many years, and I think what we have now is a group of people that meet, and they all have high—they all have security clearances to do this.” [Democracy Now!, 5/12/2006]
President George Bush issues a memo granting the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) the authority to authorize a corporation to conceal any of its activities related to national security under United States Code 15 USC 78m(b)(3)(A). [US Code Title 15,78m; George W. Bush, 5/5/2006] The memo follows recent allegations that telecommunications firms AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon have all provided records of US citizens’ telephone communications to the National Security Agency as part of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program (see October 2001 and February 5, 2006). Almost two months later, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) learns of the memo and demands an explanation from DNI John Negroponte. Schakowsky will write in part: “I am concerned about this new authority because under it, the DNI does not need to seek any permission from the president or Congress to issue such directives and there is minimal oversight once the directive is given. In fact, it is my understanding that since the DNI is only required to report on directives ‘active’ on the annual October 1st reporting date, the DNI could in fact cover up all directives by having them expire on September 30th of the reporting year. I believe that such expansive authority coupled with lax oversight could lead to the misuse of the power, the over-issuing of directives, and the hiding of activities that could be unconstitutional and violations of citizens’ civil liberties. For instance, I believe that such directives could have been issued to the major telecommunications firms concerning the sharing of phone call records with the National Security Agency without citizens’ knowledge or consent.” Schakowsky asks if there was “a particular corporate activity that the DNI or another believed warranted such protection from disclosure and liability,” how many such directives his office has issued since he was granted such authority, whether any such directives were retroactive, how it is determined that “national security” matters are at stake and who makes such determinations, and whether directives telecommunications firms provide citizens’ phone records without their knowledge or consent are being “covered up.” Negroponte’s reply to Schakowsky, if any, is not known. [Jan Schakowsky, 6/27/2006]
USA Today headline. [Source: CBS News]USA Today reports that “[t]he National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by the nation’s three biggest telecommunications providers, AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth,” according to “people with direct knowledge of the arrangement.” None of the sources would allow USA Today to identify them by name, job, or affiliation. The USA Today story claims that the NSA program “does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations,” but does use “the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity,” according to their sources. One source says that the NSA program is compiling “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” with the goal of creating “a database of every call ever made” within US borders. President Bush has said that the NSA program is focused exclusively on international calls, and for the calls to be recorded, “one end of the communication must be outside the United States.” However, this is now shown not to be the case (see January 16, 2004). A US intelligence official says that the NSA program is not recording the actual phone calls themselves, but is collecting what he calls “external” data about the communications to allow the agency to emply “social network analysis” for insight into how terrorist networks are connected with one another. Another large telecommunications company, Qwest, has refused to help the NSA eavesdrop on customer calls (see February 2001, February 2001 and Beyond, and February 27, 2001). USA Today’s sources say that the NSA eavesdropping program began after the 9/11 attacks, a claim that is not bolstered by the facts (see 1997, February 27, 2000, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, February 2001 and Beyond, February 2001, Spring 2001, April 2001, April 4, 2001, July 2001, Before September 11, 2001, and Early 2002). The sources say that the three companies agreed to provide “call-detail records,” lists of their customers’ calling histories, and updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ calling habits. In return, the sources say, the NSA offered to pay the firms for their cooperation. After the three firms agreed to help the agency, USA Today writes, “the NSA’s domestic program began in earnest” (see After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, September 2002, and Spring 2004). NSA spokesman Don Weber says the agency is operating strictly “within the law,” but otherwise refuses to comment. Former US prosecutor Paul Butler says that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs surveillance operations by US intelligence agencies, “does not prohibit the government from doing data mining” (see 1978). White House press spokesman Dana Perino says, “There is no domestic surveillance without court approval,” and all surveillance activities undertaken by government agencies “are lawful, necessary, and required for the pursuit of al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists.” All government-sponsored intelligence activities “are carefully reviewed and monitored,” she adds, and says that “all appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on the intelligence efforts of the United States” (see October 11, 2001 and October 25, 2001 and November 14, 2001). Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, refuses to discuss the agency’s operations, saying: “Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide. However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law.” All three firms released similar comments saying that they would not discuss “matters of national security,” but were complying with the law in their alleged cooperation with the NSA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is suing AT&T for what it calls its complicity in the NSA’s “illegal” domestic surveillance program (see January 31, 2006). [USA Today, 5/11/2006]
Entity Tags: Verizon Communications, USA Today, Qwest, Paul Butler, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Jane Harman, AT&T, BellSouth, National Security Agency, Dana Perino, Don Weber
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Former NSA Director Michael Hayden, testifying as part of his nomination hearings to head the CIA, denies that the NSA has engaged in illegal surveillance operations against US citizens, after allegations by former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio that he met with NSA officials well before the 9/11 attacks and discussed such a surveillance program. Nacchio refused to cooperate with the NSA, and he says that his telecommunications firm suffered retaliation as a result of his refusal (see February 27, 2001). Other telecom firms such as BellSouth, AT&T, and Verizon did cooperate (see February 2001 and Beyond). Court documents show that Nacchio balked at cooperating with the NSA after learning that the agency wanted Qwest’s phone records of the firm’s customers, but had no warrants or approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees all US intelligence agencies’ surveillance operations.
Denial - Hayden denies that the NSA has broken the law, and that it has complied with its oversight responsibilities. “Everything that the agency has done has been lawful,” he says. “It’s been briefed to the appropriate members of Congress. The only purpose of the agency’s activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people. And I think we’ve done that.” Nacchio says the NSA continued to make similar requests of Qwest until he left the firm in June 2002. The court documents are part of Nacchio’s trial on numerous counts of insider trading.
Political Reaction - The White House and Senate Republicans are generally supportive of Hayden while Senate Democrats have mixed feelings. One who questions Hayden’s credibility is Ron Wyden (D-OR) of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who says, “The American people have got to know that when the person who heads the CIA makes a statement that they are getting the full picture.” In contrast, Kit Bond (R-MO), a member of the select panel allowed access to classified information on the warrantless surveillance program, says, “The president’s program uses information collected from phone companies,” but only the telephone number called and the caller’s number. Conversations, says Bond, are not recorded. President Bush says that the NSA wiretapping program is not “mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”
Scope of Program - A senior government official given permission to speak anonymously about the program says that while the NSA has access to records of almost all domestic phone calls, the records are used solely to trace regular contacts of “known bad guys.” The NSA needs access to the entirety of citizens’ phone communications, the official says, but it isn’t “interested in the vast majority of them.” [Associated Press, 5/12/2006; New York Times, 5/12/2006; CBS News, 5/12/2006]
Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Senate Intelligence Committee, Michael Hayden, Verizon Communications, Ron Wyden, Qwest, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, AT&T, Bush administration (43), BellSouth, Joe Nacchio, Christopher (“Kit”) Bond, Central Intelligence Agency
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Lawyers file court documents alleging that the National Security Agency (NSA) worked with AT&T to set up a domestic wiretapping site seven months before the 9/11 attacks. The papers are filed as part of a lawsuit, McMurray v. Verizon Communications, which cites as plaintiffs AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth customers whose privacy was allegedly violated by the NSA warrantless wiretapping program (see May 12, 2006); it also alleges that the firms, along with the NSA and President Bush, violated the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and the US Constitution. AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth have been accused of working with the NSA to set up domestic call monitoring sites (see October 2001). Evidence that the NSA set up domestic surveillance operations at least seven months before the 9/11 attacks is at the core of the lawsuit (see Spring 2001). The suit is similar to one filed against AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF—see January 31, 2006) and other such lawsuits. A lawyer for the plaintiffs in McMurray, Carl Mayer, says: “The Bush administration asserted this [the warrantless wiretapping program] became necessary after 9/11. This undermines that assertion.” AT&T spokesman Dave Pacholczyk responds, “The US Department of Justice has stated that AT&T may neither confirm nor deny AT&T’s participation in the alleged NSA program because doing so would cause ‘exceptionally grave harm to national security’ and would violate both civil and criminal statutes.” Verizon has denied being asked by the NSA for its customer phone records, and has refused to confirm or deny “whether it has any relationship to the classified NSA program.” BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher says: “We never turned over any records to the NSA. We’ve been clear all along that they’ve never contacted us. Nobody in our company has ever had any contact with the NSA.” The NSA domestic wiretapping program is known as “Pioneer Groundbreaker,” a part of the larger “Project Groundbreaker” (see February 2001). According to Mayer and his fellow lawyer Bruce Afran, an unnamed former employee of AT&T provided them with information about NSA’s approach to AT&T. (That former employee will later be revealed as retired technician Mark Klein—see Late 2002, July 7, 2009, December 15-31, 2005, and April 6, 2006). The lawsuit is on a temporary hiatus while a judicial panel rules on a government request to assign all of the telecommunications lawsuits to a single judge. [Bloomberg, 6/30/2006]
Entity Tags: Verizon Wireless, US Department of Justice, National Security Agency, George W. Bush, Jeff Battcher, Bruce Afran, BellSouth, AT&T, Mark Klein, Carl Mayer, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Dave Pacholczyk
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Admiral Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, admits during a radio interview that the main issue over the renewal of the Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007) is not the security and safety of the nation, but the need to extend liability immunity to the nation’s telecommunications firms. In recent days, President Bush has said that unnamed terrorists are planning attacks on the US that will make 9/11 “pale by comparison,” and the only way to stop those attacks is to renew the PAA with new provisions that will grant telecommunications firms such as BellSouth, Verizon, and AT&T retroactive immunity from prosecution. Those firms are accused of illegally aiding the government in electronically monitoring the telephone and e-mail conversations of US citizens (see February 5, 2006). The PAA expires on February 16, but the government can operate under its provisions for another year. McConnell tells a National Public Radio reporter that the biggest issue surrounding the legislation is liability protection for the telecom firms. “We can’t do this mission without their help,” he says. “Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They’re being sued for billions of dollars.” They did not break the law, McConnell asserts, but the lawsuits are curtailing their willingness to cooperate with the government. “The Senate committee that passed the bill examined the activities of the telecom companies and concluded they were not violating the law,” he says. By not extending retroactive immunity, McConnell says, “we’d lose the capability to protect the country.” [National Public Radio, 2/15/2008] Two days later, McConnell echoes his unusually frank admission. Interviewed on Fox News, he says: “Let me make one other point just—very important. The entire issue here is liability protection for the carriers. And so the old law and extended law are an expired law if we don’t have retroactive liability protection for the carriers. They are less inclined to help us, and so their support.… And therefore, we do not have the agility and the speed that we had before to be able to move and try to capture [terrorists’] communications to thwart their planning.” He also implies that the argument against granting immunity—if the telecoms’ actions were legal in the first place then they wouldn’t need immunity—is valid. Interviewer Chris Wallace says: “Isn’t the central issue here that you’ve lost your power to compel telecommunications companies to cooperate with you and also your ability to offer them legal immunity? Again, the Democrats would say, ‘Look, if the cooperation is legal, they don’t need legal immunity.’” McConnell replies: “Exactly right. The issue now is there’s uncertainty because the law has expired and the law of August, the Protect America Act, allowed us to compel—compel—support from a private carrier. That’s now expired.… [T]he private sector, although willingly helped us [sic] in the past, are now saying, ‘You can’t protect me. Why should I help you?’” Interestingly, after all of the talk of imminent terror attacks, when Wallace asks, “Do you believe al-Qaeda is more of a threat now than any time since 9/11?” McConnell says flatly: “No. Following 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leadership and operatives were degraded probably two-thirds or three-quarters.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) responds that the administration’s attempt to tie the renewal of the PAA into the threat of future terrorist attacks is “wrong, divisive and nothing but fear-mongering.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) adds that McConnell’s “latest comments show yet again the shamelessness of the administration’s tactics.” [Fox News, 2/17/2008]
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