Some companies helped the NSA, but which?

This is the first in a two-part series. Part two offers a glimpse at the technical details of how the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance system seems to work.

Even after the recent scrutiny of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance project approved by President Bush, an intriguing question remains unanswered: Which corporations cooperated with the spy agency?

Some reports have identified executives at "major telecommunications companies" who chose to open their networks to the NSA. Because it may be illegal to divulge customer communications, though, not one has chosen to make its cooperation public.

Under federal law, any person or company who helps someone "intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication"--unless specifically authorized by law--could face criminal charges. Even if cooperation is found to be legal, however, it could be embarrassing to acknowledge opening up customers' communications to a spy agency.

A survey by CNET has identified 15 large telecommunications and Internet companies that are willing to say that they have not participated in the NSA program, which intercepts e-mail and telephone calls without a judge's approval.

Twelve other companies that were contacted and asked identical questions chose not to reply, in some cases citing "national security" as the reason.

Those results come amid a push on Capitol Hill for more information about the NSA's wiretapping practices. On Monday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is expected to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and President Bush and his closest allies have been stepping up their defense of the program in preparation for it.

To be sure, there are a number of possible explanations for the companies' silence. In some cases, a company's media department could have been overworked. Another possibility is the company's lawyers were unavailable or chose not to reply for unknown reasons.

Also, some survey recipients, such as NTT Communications, responded with a general statement expressing compliance "with law enforcement requests as permitted and required by law" rather than addressing the question of NSA surveillance.

Who's helping the NSA?

CNET asked telecommunications and Internet companies about cooperation with the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping scheme. We asked them: "Have you turned over information or opened up your networks to the NSA without being compelled by law?"

Company Response
Adelphia Communications Declined comment
AOL Time Warner No [1]
AT&T Declined comment
BellSouth Communications No
Cable & Wireless* No response
Cablevision Systems No
CenturyTel No
Charter Communications No [1]
Cingular Wireless No [2]
Citizens Communications No response
Cogent Communications* No [1]
Comcast No
Cox Communications No
EarthLink No
Global Crossing* Inconclusive
Google Declined comment
Level 3* No response
Microsoft No [3]
NTT Communications* Inconclusive [4]
Qwest Communications No [2]
SAVVIS Communications* No response
Sprint Nextel No [2]
T-Mobile USA No [2]
United Online No response
Verizon Communications Inconclusive [5]
XO Communications* No [1]
Yahoo Declined comment

* = Not a company contacted by Rep. John Conyers.
[1] The answer did not explicitly address NSA but said that compliance happens only if required by law.
[2] Provided by a source with knowledge of what this company is telling Conyers. In the case of Sprint Nextel, the source was familiar with Nextel's operations.
[3] As part of an answer to a closely related question for a different survey.
[4] The response was "NTT Communications respects the privacy rights of our customers and complies fully with law enforcement requests as permitted and required by law."
[5] The response was "Verizon complies with applicable laws and does not comment on law enforcement or national security matters."

A lawsuit that could yield more details about industry cooperation is winding its way through the federal courts. Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco, sued AT&T after a report that the company had shared its customer records database--though not its network--with the NSA.

AT&T would not respond when asked whether it participated. An AT&T spokesman, Dave Pacholczyk, said: "We don't comment on matters of national security."

The survey, started Jan. 25, found that wireless providers and cable companies were the most likely to distance themselves from the NSA. Cingular Wireless, Comcast, Cox Communications, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile said they had not turned over information or opened their networks to the NSA without being required by law.

Companies that are backbone providers, or which operate undersea cables spanning the ocean, were among the least likely to respond. AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Global Crossing, Level 3, NTT Communications, SAVVIS Communications and Verizon Communications chose not to answer the questions posed to them.

The New York Times reported on Dec. 24 that the NSA has gained access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. But "the identities of the corporations involved could not be determined," the newspaper added.

At the water's edge
Analysts and historians who follow the intelligence community have long said the companies that operate submarine cables--armored sheaths wrapped around bundles of fiber optic lines--surreptitiously provide access to the NSA.

"You go to Global Crossing and say...once your cable comes up for air in New Jersey or on the coast of Virginia, wherever it goes up, we want to put a little splice in, thank you very much, which NSA can do," said Matthew Aid, who recently completed the first volume in a multiple-volume history of the NSA. "The technology of getting access to that stuff is fairly straightforward."

Aid was citing Global Crossing as an example, not singling it out. Global Crossing describes itself as an Internet backbone network that shuttles traffic for about 700 telecommunications carriers, mobile operators and Internet service providers. According to the International Cable Protection Committee, the company has full or partial ownership of several trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cables.

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Add a Comment (Log in or register) 76 comments (Page 1 of 2)
Some companies helped the terrorists
by Kellino February 6, 2006 7:20 AM PST
Companies likes CNET/NEWS.COM for disclosing to terrorists which communication networks might not be montitored.

This borders on treason. The New York Times has violoated the Espionage Act by illegally disclosing the existence of a classified program. The Times will have its day in court and CNET comes dangerously close to the same legal jeaporadies by identifying communiation networks which are not participating in the NSA's terrorist survelliance program.

CNET -- you could have posted the survey results with general answers, but no you had to go the extra mile and identify the communications networks that are not participating.

Let's just give the terrorists their own private communication network while we're at it so that they too can have a right to privacy while they discuss how to murder us.
Reply to this comment View all 5 replies
It's NOT a domestic spying program
by February 6, 2006 7:41 AM PST
The focus is on international calls originating from the U.S., not on the average American citizens as the desperate Dems would like you to believe. Straight from the Clinton playbook, the liberals or Dems continue to spin their lies so that eventually they become half-truths or myths. Fortunately, the majority of Americans didn't fall for it this time.
Reply to this comment View all 5 replies
Yellow Press !!!
by Dead Soulman February 6, 2006 11:20 AM PST
Come on CNET. As much as I enjoy reading your stories, I can't stand your "yellow press" coverage of the wiretapping of suspicious conversations.

Why don't you focus on the details of what goes on with this program. It listens to conversations of suspicious people living in the US and tracks their conversations abroad as well as their activities within the US. It doesn't listen to domestic conversations of regular americans.

Cut the nonsense. Report the truth !!!
I'm starting to believe that George Soros and his whole Air America team of clowns are running CNET.

Come on guys, get back on track.
Reply to this comment View all 5 replies
by heystoopid February 6, 2006 12:32 PM PST
Logical, for no company, wants to leave itself wide open to deliberate admission to the illegal breaches of the various state and federal privacy acts in force throughout the country!

As for the NSA monitoring, of all local communications, history tell us this program became reality after the innauguration of the current encumbent in 2000, at 1600 pennsylvania avenue(previous programs by past president's all were subject to the 1968 spy act, something that his cronies who seek to abuse the system on a daily basis on the basis the ends justifies the means and the means justify the ends, fail to omit in their public dialogue)

the following two statements apply here!

1/Those who give up essential liberties for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. - Benjamin Franklin

2/Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. - George Washington
Reply to this comment View reply
Does this make sense?
by mgreere February 6, 2006 2:50 PM PST
Now it's starting to make more sense.

If what dictates probable cause is not contacts in a cellphone,
but computer sniffing, arguing for probabe cause would
probably be considerably harder.

This person fit our model and has a 79% chance of engaging in
suspicious activity. That's what you would want to move on if
you've got a big net and you're looking for the best leads.
Probabilistic. But try passing that by a court.

I'll bet it's the process that leads to actual surveillance that
would fail to fetch warrants.

The open question remains why the admnistration has chosen to
keep even the few people it briefs in congress largely in the
dark. (And, of course, why no effort has been made to seek
approval or real oversight.)
Reply to this comment View reply
I*m Shocked, Shocked That NSA Eavesdrops On Int?l E-Comms
by Catgic February 6, 2006 3:59 PM PST
Wake up and smell the coffee wafting out from behind the double finger-stock 120 db e-sealed Black Velvet Curtain, CNETizens. Would Captain Renault be shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on in Las Vegas or in the back room at Rick?s Place?

The National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on and monitoring all global, international electronic communication emissions from the middle of that Maryland cow pasture since ?By memorandum of October 24, 1952, President Truman established the National Security Agency (NSA) as the organization within the U.S. Government responsible for communications intelligence (COMINT) activities.?

Why is anyone shocked, shocked that the NSA in eavesdropping on any and all phone calls and Internet packets going to and fro on links between domestic and international communication nodes? That is the precise job Give ?Em Hell Harry Executive Ordered them to do.

There is a good reason why knowledgeable folks say the NSA acronym really stands for NEVER SAY ANYTHING. That is, never say anything over the phone, FAX or Internet you do not mind the government reading or listening to.

The 64 Trillion U$D BLACK BUDGET question is, when does a *Terrorist Surveillance Program* cross the Constitutional line and become a *Domestic Eavesdropping Program*?

I shall be waiting with bated Techno-Geek breath for ?A glimpse at the technical details of how the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance system seems to work,? when Part Two of this Declan and Anne series is launched onto the Web tomorrow. JP B-)
Reply to this comment
by solarflair February 6, 2006 5:45 PM PST
At least comcast is not giving away personel information.
I have no problem with monitoring provided it is conducted in a legal manner with provisions in place to protect americans rights. I'm all for monitoring targets that are linked to known factions in the middle east who are a national security threat to the United States and our allied friends around the world.
Reply to this comment View reply
Americans need to know-marketplace response
by marileev February 6, 2006 7:01 PM PST
As a free market economy there are many factors which dictate the economic ebb and flow of the economy. This is a verifiable factor, just as companies greasing the coffers of politicians or which places use cruelty free products. We need to know.

Email's transitory stops don't secure your message, these packets can be intercepted by the government, maldoers, whomever:
Reply to this comment
Response to Michael G
by Kellino February 6, 2006 8:50 PM PST
Couldn't respond so starting a new thread...

Yes it is sad that we're still here isn't it :) My excuse is that I'm home helping my wife recover from surgery and I'm finding this more rfreshing than indulging in computer geek stuff :)

I think have a better appreciation for your concerns, but I still feel that some of them may be ill-founded.

For example you said "Had FISA never been passed, Gonzales' case would be a lot stronger (and the president wouldn't have any laws to break). But FISA exists, and so it appears that he has broken the law."

But the legislation is never the final authority. That is reserved for the Constitution. Warrantless survelliance has yet to be struck down by the courts but this specific program from the Bush Administration hasn't been heard yet.

No law will be upheld if it is found to be unconstitutional within the specifics of the case brough before the court.

You concluded with "Still, I don't really care about whether it's legal in the technical sense. I care that we have two fundamental elements of
our democracy being largely ignored. 1. Checks and balances. 2. Federal law."

My opinion but it seems to be like you might be contradicting yourself here. How can you not care about whether it is legal in the technical sense and only be concerned with checks and balances and Federal law. Isn't that all the same thing?

And in the system of checks and balances, Congress is given the authority to delcare war, has the power of the purse, and the Senate can ratify treaties. The Executive exeucutes -- especially when it comes to foreign intelligence. The courts have oversight into the legality of such programs and again -- so far the courts have upheld warrantless searches by the Executive for national security. It seems to me that the checks and balances put in place by the Framers are working as intended.

The comment I made about Anti-American rehetoric was in response to someone elses comments.

Anyways that's my $.0.02 thus far.

It does appear that there is need for clarity on FISA and you mentioned some of the reasons. Hopefully Congress will stop posturing and start legislating.

My biggest objection is to the way the media has framed the case. You've seen on this forum all those who insist that the 4th Amendment is absolute -- which is ironic because liberals are rearely strict constructionalists when it comes to the Constitution.

People need to tone down the rhetoric and try to understand better before they start making accusations -- and that includes Senators :) This is Consitutional Law we are talking about so it's not easy and I don't think the media has done a very good job at educating on the matter.

I also stand by my original post that CNET's decision to publish this information was unneccessary, unhelpful and in doing so they are following in the footsteps of the NY Times which may find itself facing charges of violating the Espionage Act when this is all over.

What great value did posting this information serve, while the legality of the program is being discussed in Congressional hearings? Seems to me it didn't do much other than give terrorists information as to which communications networks are more secure for their nefarious purposes. Why would we want to release information which makes it easier for terrorists to communicate more securely? It seems that some are so convinced this activity is legal -- while hearings are transpiring -- that they think somehow they are doing us all a favor by publishing this. Now that's irony and it's also very dangerous.
Reply to this comment View reply
Are You Scared Yet?
by February 7, 2006 11:28 AM PST
Kevin, you should be ashamed, you still think there is a boogey man, and that GW can keep you safe, without applying any security at our ports or at our borders....
All I can say to you is BOO!
Reply to this comment View reply
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