By Martin Bosworth
That’s the accusation levied by disgraced former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio, who claims that he was approached by officials from the Bush administration to bring his company into an NSA surveillance program in February 2001–as in, several months before the 9/11 attacks, and contradicting claims made by the White House that 9/11 was the reason the program existed in the first place.
It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to consider that a class-A douchebag like Nacchio could conceivably be wearing the white hat in this case, and given that he’s looking at a long stretch in the Big House, I imagine he feels like he’ll say anything to stave that off. But what’s even sadder is that Nacchio may be telling the truth.
In March of this year, the GSA awarded a massive, multibillion-dollar network services contract to Verizon, AT&T Business, and Qwest, unexpectedly shutting out Sprint Nextel. Qwest’s win over Sprint was a surprise to many–they themselves said they were the “dark horse” candidate. Given that former CEO Nacchio was convicted of insider trading just under a month later, it’s not at all inconceivable that current (and soon to retire) CEO Richard Notaebaert might have been more than willing to play ball with the Bush White House’s directives rather than lose lucrative contracts that would bring the company back to black. Don’t forget that current GSA head Lurita Doan is a hack of an incredible order of magnitude, thinking nothing of using her office to advance personal goals or the agenda of the Republican Party.
Beyond the possibility of insider favoritism to ensure cooperation, it’s important to remember that there are actually two distinct and separate NSA spy gambits at issue here. One, of course, is the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ phone calls without applying for warrants or court orders, and for which the major telecom companies are seeking retroactive immunity against lawsuits for their support role. The other is the examination and investigation of telecom customers’ calling records for signs of criminal or terrorist activity without the knowledge or consent of the customers. AT&T famously declared customers’ calling records “corporate property,” and flat-out admitted that it would share that data with the government, like it or not–and their competitors, in all likelihood, followed suit.
Although many mainstream media outlets and the public often conflate the two programs, they are different–and even if the actual telecom-enabled surveillance wasn’t in play until after 9/11, there is ample evidence that the turning over of customer records was going on well before 9/11, as this Slate article from January 2006 notes:
A former telecom executive told us that efforts to obtain call details go back to early 2001, predating the 9/11 attacks and the president’s now celebrated secret executive order. The source, who asked not to be identified so as not to out his former company, reports that the NSA approached U.S. carriers and asked for their cooperation in a “data-mining” operation, which might eventually cull “millions” of individual calls and e-mails.
Ryan Singel at Threat Level notes that at least one of the lawsuits filed against the telecoms for their role in the NSA surveillance program hinges on testimony from AT&T whistleblowers who claim that they were approached to build a massive call monitoring center within days of Bush’s inauguration. Recall also the testimony of whistleblower Mark Klein on how closely AT&T and the NSA cooperated to build their secret surveillance centers. Klein’s testimony is the cornerstone of another lawsuit against AT&T and the NSA, this one brought by the EFF.
Indeed, it may have been the call record data mining–and not the warrantless surveillance–that triggered the now-infamous “hospital room showdown” between former Attorney General John Ashcroft and (ahem) former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Given how readily these details are shrouded in murk and obfuscation–and how often the media ignores the important details while concentrating on pushing the administration’s talking points–we may never know the truth of which program it was. Nor may we ever know for sure if Nacchio is telling the truth, or if he’s just bellyaching to give himself some leverage to avoid a lengthy prison term.
But we owe it to ourselves to find out and get the truth.