The NSA and King George

King GeorgeWell, you knew I had to get to this issue sooner or later.

For anyone who’s been hiding under a rock, it was revealed early last week that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.

“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.

For customers of those companies, this means that the United Sates government has detailed records of calls they made, whether the call was across town or across the country, to their family members, co-workers, business contacts and others. And since all things loop back upon itself with the Bush Administration and their cabal of incestuous cronies, it’s worth noting that Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who has just been nominated by President Bush to become the director of the CIA, headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. That means that Hayden would have overseen the agency’s domestic call-tracking program. Hayden had nothing to say about it. Oddly enough.

Well, President Bush and the Administration scrambled quickly to put out this particular fire. Essentially King George was trotted out before the cameras to do his usual redirection by raising the spectre of terrorism, insisting that the NSA program is necessary, and reassuring Americans that they can trust their government. According to the President; “We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates. So far we’ve been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil.”

Yada yada. Do you feel reassured? Well, here’s the problem. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information aren’t being handed over as part of the program. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information. Bush & Company raise the spectre of al Qaeda to scare us into thinking this is perfectly reasonable.

“Are you telling me tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaeda?”” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy complained. “These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything.”

Maybe we should put this in perspective. In 1975, a congressional investigation discovered that the NSA had been intercepting, without warrants, international communications for more than 20 years at the behest of the CIA and other agencies. The spy campaign, code-named “Shamrock,” led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was designed to protect Americans from illegal eavesdropping. So the very agency that President Bush is asking us to trust is the agency whose activities led to the legislation that specifically limits the surveillance activities of the NSA, CIA and FBI, and was designed to provide oversight and some sense of accountability.

As for what Americans think of all this, it looks like it’s all coming down to party affiliation once again. By 51%-43%, those responding to a poll disapproved of the program (disclosed Thursday in USA TODAY). I’m astounded that the numbers are that close. What in the world could make someone think this is a great idea? Most of those who approve of the program say it violates some civil liberties but is acceptable because “investigating terrorism is the more important goal”

Does this sound remotely familiar to anyone else? Every time it’s been discovered that the government is up to something else no good, all of the Conservative Republican media outlets start spewing forth this rhetoric about how in a time of war certain sacrifices must be made. It looks like a lot of people agree with that. They’re willing to see their children and grandchildren in chains, just as long as they don’t have to be frightened by the spectre of al Qaeda.

Yeah, these handcuffs chafe, but we’re keeping the terrorists are bay, man.

Out of all this mess, one bright spot has emerged. There’s at least one company that did not go ass-up the first time the NSA laid a $50 bill on the table. Americans were betrayed by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. But one major telecommunications company refused to participate in the NSA spying program: Qwest.

I’ll quote verbatim below from an article in USA Today.

According to sources familiar with the events, Qwest’s CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA’s assertion that Qwest didn’t need a court order — or approval under FISA — to proceed. Adding to the tension, Qwest was unclear about who, exactly, would have access to its customers’ information and how that information might be used.

Financial implications were also a concern, the sources said. Carriers that illegally divulge calling information can be subjected to heavy fines. The NSA was asking Qwest to turn over millions of records. The fines, in the aggregate, could have been substantial.

The NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database, the sources said. As a matter of practice, the NSA regularly shares its information — known as “product” in intelligence circles — with other intelligence groups. Even so, Qwest’s lawyers were troubled by the expansiveness of the NSA request, the sources said.

The NSA, which needed Qwest’s participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.

Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest’s patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest’s refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.

In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest’s foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest’s lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA’s explanation did little to satisfy Qwest’s lawyers. “They told (Qwest) they didn’t want to do that because FISA might not agree with them,” one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest’s suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general’s office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

In June 2002, Nacchio resigned amid allegations that he had misled investors about Qwest’s financial health. But Qwest’s legal questions about the NSA request remained.

Unable to reach agreement, Nacchio’s successor, Richard Notebaert, finally pulled the plug on the NSA talks in late 2004, the sources said.

As far as I’m concerned, all you need to know about this issue can be summed up by this last part about Qwest. Simply put, if the NSA was operating totally within the boundaries of the law, as President Bush and his cronies have been asserting, why was it so afraid to go before the FISA court or the U.S. Attorney General?

Well, at least one company didn’t sell us out. Thanks Qwest. Perhaps there is hope for our democracy, after all.

And as for AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth?

They can all kiss my all-American ass.

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