The NSA was spying on Americans before 9/11, and telecoms were in on it

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.

9 replies »

  1. Great stuff, Martin. But you leave one question hanging for me: why were the Busheviks pushing the telecoms to data mine on us BEFORE 9/11? In fact, you note that they were after the info from the time Dubya got the seat warm in the Oval Office.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to know that – it might show that 1) they were aware of an imminent threat from Al Qaeda and trying to find the cells – then slacked off for things like Bush’s many vacations and Cheney’s secret energy meetings in undisclosed locations; or 2) they were interested in spying on us from the beginning to root out (or at least identify) opposition to the Bush “election.” Or simply to gather dirt to use for political purposes in Rove’s relentless drive for a one party electorate….

  2. Jim,

    Good question, man. Perhaps THE question that needs to be asked.

    We know Cheney is a product of the Nixon administration, with its paranoid devotion to secrecy and desire to vest all power in the executive. Karl Rove was also a young GOP operative from that time, and as we’ve seen now, would stop at nothing to get the most raw data on the opposition possible to ensure it could be exploited for victory.

    Honestly, knowing these creeps, your third answer is probably the closest to the truth–they simply wanted to have as much info as they could on Americans to root out “undesirable” elements and use dirt for political purposes. It’s standard operating procedure with these guys.

  3. Jeff,

    Maybe so, but that’s not who I’m calling out here. If you want to take the DNC to task for dirty tricks, feel free to write about it yourself.

    And I think it’s hilarious that the idea of violating people’s privacy doesn’t get to you, but calling someone a douchebag does. I call it as I see it, and I’m sorry if it makes you upset, but that’s not going to change.

  4. That’s OK by me, you can say whatever you want, but name calling just is plain old bad manners. As a Southern boy, I was always taught to even treat my enemies with respect and dignity
    I don’t remember saying that violating people’s privacy didn’t get to me…that is an idea of your own invention. Actually, I more or less agree with you about privacy, and cherish whatever little privacy we have left.

    You know, all of this doom and gloom, hand wringing, gnashing of the teeth won’t really change anything. No matter who’s in charge won’t affect our day to day lives…we’ll still get up every day, do our jobs, pay our bills, try to educate our kids, obey the laws, pay our taxes, and try to be productive citizens.

    I’m not upset about your name calling, it’s just that I expected better from you. I’ve read your writings, and while I don’t agree with a lot of what you say, I find you to be a decent chap. That being said, I won’t say anything else on this subject.


  5. Jeff,

    So I guess calling Nacchio an arrogant prick and calling for him to be drawn and quartered was just a hiccup, eh? Or was that acceptable because you lost money in the stock market:

    My mother’s from Kentucky, actually, and she taught me to call things as you saw them, even if it caused people discomfort, because the truth needs to be said plainly.

    The point is that you’re wrong. Things like this DO affect our day to day lives, because they change the way we look at the world, and each other. They make us more fearful, less willing to question, and less willing to stand up for what’s right. And that’s not something I can countenance.

    The difference between us is that I didn’t expect better from you. That’s why I never engage any of your comments on the other guys’ blogs–I know exactly what you’re going to say, and I generally don’t find it worth the effort to respond.

  6. I lost money in the stock market???? You certainly think that you can read my mind. To quote, “I know exactly what you’re going to say.” If you have ESP, why are you wasting time on writing…why don’t you apply your supreme judgement on the market, get rich, and use your newfound wealth to help out those unfortunates you allegedly have such compassion for?

    By the way, my stock porfolio is up YTD 68.9% as of today’s close. I won’t even comment on how well my commodity trading has gone this year, but my return far exceeds what I’ve accomplished in the stock market. I’ve gotten hammered on a couple of options, which was bad trading on my part. but than again, unlike you, most of us make mistakes.

    I like to read this blog, and find well thought out arguments that I might disagree with, but I still check them out.

    The real difference between us is that I’m willing to actually check out what the other side has to say. I don’t carry around this supreme intellectual air, that some of y’all do.

    Admit it, deep down inside you think you’re just a little better, smarter, and sharper than the rest of us…..I might be wrong, but I don’t think so. You show a remarkable intolerance for any other view other than your own, so rest assured I won’t be engaging you in any comments anymore. I hate to muck up someone’s journal because I’m not part of the choir. For this, I’m sorry.

    I will not bother y’all anymore, as reasonable , civil discourse seems to be impossible on this blog. I’m sorry I feel like I’ve worn out my welcome. It’s tough being a lone conservative commenting on a liberal blog.

    I only hope you show better manners in the future to anybody who doesn’t agree with you.


  7. Jeff,

    Here’s the thing. I’m not the guy who was strutting around putting on airs about how high-minded he was for not calling people by cruel names, only doing so after he called a guy he didn’t like an arrogant prick and wanting him to die by torture.

    Nor am I the guy who tried to compare dirty tricks in a political campaign to a concerted effort to violate the Fourth Amendment in order to siphon data on millions of people. They’re both wrong, but one’s an order of magnitude worse than the other.

    No one makes you do any of these things. I didn’t compel you to comment or respond, so I don’t feel the least bit bad about the fact that you can’t justify your own double standard. You tied the noose around the tree and stuck your neck in.

    I make mistakes in investing as well, believe me. In fact, I started my work as a consumer reporter because I saw firsthand how bad it is for people who don’t have the financial education they need to save smartly. And I use a lot of the wealth I got back to make the world a better place for those around me.

    Do I think I’m smarter than most people? No, not really. But I’m smart enough to know when a guy like you is playing the world’s smallest violin to cover up the fact that you talked yourself into a corner and can’t get out of it.

    So, feel free to see yourself out and don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way. Or stick around. I’ve proven my point, no matter what you do.