Thursday, May 11, 2006

THIS IS WHAT MEMEORANDUM looked like at 7:10 AM. This is what it looked like at 10:50 AM. This is what it looked like at 6:25 PM, as I began typing this. About 18 (by my count) newer articles -- reactions from the Bush administration, updated commentary, etc. -- has pushed the original USA Today article more than halfway down the screen.

I have read the USA Today piece but am nowhere near working my way through all the blogger responses, or even the ones that interest me most.

I have changed my phone service provider, however -- from Verizon to Vonage. I wanted to switch to Qwest, but unfortunately they do not have service in my part of the country. I did tell the CSR at Qwest how much I respected and admired their refusal to turn over their customers' call records to the government. I told her I thought it was an extraordinarily principled stance -- especially so given the way the Bush administration tried to strong-arm Qwest into violating its privacy policy and betraying its customers:

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.

Although I am disappointed that I cannot give Qwest my business, it does comfort me to know that my government will not be able to get the calling records of millions of Americans who live in the West and Midwest.

1 comment:

CE Petro said...

I'm still not 100% sure that other companies aren't following the lead of Bellsouth (ugh!), Verizon and AT&T. I'd love to change from bellsouth, but wont make the move until I find a company that I can be assured isn't doing the "Texas Side-Step" with consumers. The few companies available in my area have given the stock "only in a police investigation, with proper warrants" line. There is no way to tell if they are being truthful or not with that phrase.