NSA – A Powerful, Permanent Presence

Since when does corporate Amerikkka need protection from its citizens? Seems to us that they should be passing laws that protect us from all the rich bastards that own those telecoms and from the good ol’ boys who run our corrupt, criminal government.

Wider Spying Fuels Aid Plan for Telecom Industry
By ERIC LICHTBLAU, JAMES RISEN and SCOTT SHANE
Published: December 16, 2007

Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, says industry deserves “thanks, not lawsuits.”

WASHINGTON — For months, the Bush administration has waged a high-profile campaign, including personal lobbying by President Bush and closed-door briefings by top officials, to persuade Congress to pass legislation protecting companies from lawsuits for aiding the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping program.

But the battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government’s extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.

The N.S.A.’s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure.

To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. But in 2004, one major phone carrier balked at turning over its customers’ records. Worried about possible privacy violations or public relations problems, company executives declined to help the operation, which has not been previously disclosed.

In a separate N.S.A. project, executives at a Denver phone carrier, Qwest, refused in early 2001 to give the agency access to their most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls, according to people aware of the request, which has not been previously reported. They say the arrangement could have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order, which alarmed them.

The federal government’s reliance on private industry has been driven by changes in technology. Two decades ago, telephone calls and other communications traveled mostly through the air, relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The N.S.A. could vacuum up phone, fax and data traffic merely by erecting its own satellite dishes. But the fiber optics revolution has sent more and more international communications by land and undersea cable, forcing the agency to seek company cooperation to get access.

After the disclosure two years ago that the N.S.A. was eavesdropping on the international communications of terrorism suspects inside the United States without warrants, more than 40 lawsuits were filed against the government and phone carriers. As a result, skittish companies and their lawyers have been demanding stricter safeguards before they provide access to the government and, in some cases, are refusing outright to cooperate, officials said.

“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,” said an industry official who believes that immunity is critical for the phone carriers. “This episode has caused companies to change their conduct in a variety of ways.”

With a vote in the Senate on the issue expected as early as Monday, the Bush administration has intensified its efforts to win retroactive immunity for companies cooperating with counterterrorism operations.

“The intelligence community cannot go it alone,” Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article Monday urging Congress to pass the immunity provision. “Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits.”

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey echoed that theme in an op-ed article of his own in The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, saying private companies would be reluctant to provide their “full-hearted help” if they were not given legal protections.

The government’s dependence on the phone industry, driven by the changes in technology and the Bush administration’s desire to expand surveillance capabilities inside the United States, has grown significantly since the Sept. 11 attacks. The N.S.A., though, wanted to extend its reach even earlier. In December 2000, agency officials wrote a transition report to the incoming Bush administration, saying the agency must become a “powerful, permanent presence” on the commercial communications network, a goal that they acknowledged would raise legal and privacy issues.

While the N.S.A. operates under restrictions on domestic spying, the companies have broader concerns — customers’ demands for privacy and shareholders’ worries about bad publicity.

Read it here.

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