Steve Soto asks why all the Telecom companies are now (after a few days and, presumably, some heated meetings with their crisis communications firms) denying the allegations in the USAT article.
All three of the companies named in the USAT story have now in varying degrees denied the central element of the story, which is that the three companies have cooperated and turned over to the NSA millions of phone records on domestic callers without any court order or legal authorization. So with the denials, all three companies are putting the credibility of their multi-billion dollar enterprises at risk if it is found that they are engaging in word parsing here and in fact did what the USAT said they did.
Which raises several questions:
1. Did the USAT get the story correct here, and are the companies parsing words to cover the fact that the NSA "took" the information with the company's knowledge through its own equipment tapping into the company's switches, instead of the legally-problematic act of the companies "giving" the data to the feds?
2. Was the paper set up by leaks from “sources” aiming to discredit not only the paper, but to use the resulting flame-out to bury something worse and additional coverage of the matter?
Looking back at James Risen and Eric Lichtblau's Christmas Eve article (in which they snuck in some technical data while no one was looking), I think this is a case of parsing. But I think it's not a question of giving or taking the data (as Steve speculates) so much as giving the NSA access to the switches.
Here's a long passage from Risen and Lichtblau:
Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. The identities of the corporations involved could not be determined.
The switches are some of the main arteries for moving voice and some Internet traffic into and out of the United States, and, with the globalization of the telecommunications industry in recent years, many international-to-international calls are also routed through such American switches.
One outside expert on communications privacy who previously worked at the N.S.A. said that to exploit its technological capabilities, the American government had in the last few years been quietly encouraging the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international traffic that is routed through American-based switches.
The growth of that transit traffic had become a major issue for the intelligence community, officials say, because it had not been fully addressed by 1970's-era laws and regulations governing the N.S.A. Now that foreign calls were being routed through switches on American soil, some judges and law enforcement officials regarded eavesdropping on those calls as a possible violation of those decades-old restrictions, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court-approved warrants for domestic surveillance.
Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials. [my emphasis]
Now, this article implies it refers to the program reported in December, one that involves tapping US to international communications without a warrant. Moreover, this article refers repeatedly to Bush's order authorizing domestic spying, and by all reports, this exclusively domestic program doesn't enjoy the protection of a Bush Executive Order. But other details make this sound like the program USAT revealed on Monday.
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said.
Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages.
Large volume of information and traffic analysis--sounds a lot like the program USAT was talking about. And Eric Lichtblau effectively admitted on Diane Rehm on Monday that this access--the backdoor to our communication backbones--was what the USAT reported last week. (That is, I think there's a distinction; there's the listening to calls between the US and other countries, which Bush approved, and then there is the data mining that they use to decide who to tap.) Roughly transcribing (Lichtblau's comments are right at the beginning of the program), Lichtblau said,
We had known the framework of the program ...
[What is new with the USAT article] is the scope and extent of the program ...
USAT put meat on the bones about the numbers and the internal debates ...
With this Lichtblau confirms that this Christmas Eve article describes the technical aspects of the program about which the USAT revealed the scope (and I believe he referred to this article in particular).
So yeah. The Telecoms may be technically correct. They didn't give the data to NSA--or have it taken from them. They just opened the backdoor and allowed the NSA to waltz right in and take what they wanted.
Update: Via NSA Direct Dial at Soto's thread, the AT&T suit alleges:
42. On information and belief, AT&T Corp. has provided and continues to provide the government with direct access to all or a substantial number of the communications transmitted through its key domestic telecommunications facilities, including direct access to streams of domestic, international and foreign telephone and Internet communications.