TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Tapping Into AT&T

Tapping Into AT&T

Mike Riddle (
Sun, 05 Feb 2006 15:37:46 -0600,0,4247173.story?coll=la-home-oped

From the Los Angeles Times

Tapping into AT&T

February 5, 2006

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has spent much of the last few weeks trying to
explain that to protect American democracy, it must sometimes spy on
American citizens. Now the debate over its warrantless domestic spying
program has reached out to touch one of the iconic names of American
capitalism: Ma Bell.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for civil
liberties in cyberspace, sued AT&T last week, alleging that the
company violated its duty to keep phone records and conversations
private. The suit asserts that AT&T not only allowed the National
Security Agency to intercept phone calls without a warrant as part of
its program to monitor the calls of U.S. residents with suspected ties
to terrorists overseas, but it also enabled government agents to sift
through the company's vast database of calling records in search of
suspicious activity.

The lawsuit takes an indirect route to the foundation's ultimate goal,
which is to force investigators to get a court's approval before
spying on U.S. residents. At Senate hearings on the NSA program, which
begin Monday, members of the Judiciary Committee may want to borrow
from the foundation's strategy and see what they can learn not just
from government officials but from telecommunications executives, who
cannot hide behind executive privilege.

Ma Bell is certainly an inviting target. Outside of the NSA, no one
knows more about the domestic surveillance program than the phone
companies, the largest of which is AT&T. And the Bush administration
has been extremely tight-lipped about the program's details. As a
result, it is impossible to judge whether the program has focused
exclusively on people chatting with Al Qaeda, as President Bush likes
to say, or a much larger group of Americans who just happen to make or
receive international calls.

AT&T, which isn't commenting on the suit, may have felt it had no
choice but to comply with the NSA's requests. Federal law requires
telephone companies to cooperate with law enforcement demands if they
are supported by a court order or, in emergencies, certification from
the U.S. attorney general that no court order is necessary. The
surveillance program was almost certainly backed by just such a
certification, and that could stop the lawsuit in its tracks.

Ideally, the lawsuit will stop AT&T from cooperating in the NSA
program, or at least prod it to put up more resistance. There is no
need or excuse for warrantless surveillance in America, especially
given the accelerated procedures Congress established for obtaining
such warrants. Indeed, the court that Congress created with the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is notoriously accommodating to
such requests. In addition, the administration's assertion that it can
conduct whatever spying operation it pleases during the unrelenting
war on terrorism is an affront to Americans' privacy and due-process

More practically, the lawsuit may also reveal how the spying program
works and what types of information it collects. But the
administration views such details as sensitive national security
secrets, and it is likely the government will try to have the lawsuit
thrown out before any such disclosures are made.

In the mid-1970s, the late Sen. Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, led a
Senate investigation into domestic spying and other abuses of power by
the NSA and federal agencies. By interviewing executives from
telecommunications companies, his investigators gained critical
details about the government's snooping. Members of the Senate
Judiciary Committee could learn from the Church committee's boldness.

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