Telco Spying Accusations Widen

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2008-03-07

Telco Spying Accusations Widen

A second whistle-blower has come forward with accusations that an unnamed major wireless carrier widely cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless domestic spying program.

Babak Pasdar, a computer security consultant, claims in a Feb. 28 seven-page affidavit that the carrier granted the government an open gateway known as the "Quantico circuit" to customer voice and data packets, including e-mail and text messages. Quantico, Va., is the home of a U.S. Marine Corp base and the headquarters of the FBI's electronic surveillance operations.

Pasdar claims he discovered the circuit in September 2003 while working for the carrier to improve security on the company's internal network. "I was withheld from implementing what the organization had deemed 'standard' access control for the Quantico circuit," Pasdar said in his affidavit.

When he pressed two company consultants about the highly unusual nature of allowing "some third party" to have completely open access to the system, Pasdar said one of the consultants told him, "Dude, that's what they want."

Later, he said, the company's director of security told Pasdar to "forget about the circuit" and to "move on" with the project.

Pasdar's claims are similar to the disclosures from retired AT&T technician Mark Klein, who has described a "secret room" in an AT&T facility that allowed the government to monitor the voice and data traffic of AT&T's customers. Klein's statements are basis for a lawsuit the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) has filed accusing AT&T of violating customers' privacy rights.

"When you put Mr. Pasdar's information together with that of AT&T whistle-blower Mark Klein, there is troubling evidence of telecom misconduct in massive domestic surveillance of ordinary Americans," EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn said in a statement. "Congress needs to have hearings and get some answers about whether American telecommunications companies are helping the government to illegally spy on millions of us."

The Senate Feb. 13 approved a renewal of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) that includes immunity for the carriers who participated in the White House's domestic surveillance program. The carriers are under a federal court order to neither confirm nor deny their participation in the program.

The House has yet to reach a compromise with the Senate over the telco immunity provisions in the FISA renewal. President Bush has promised to veto any legislation that does not grant immunity to the telephone companies.

Telco Spying Accusations Widen

title=Voting in the Dark}

Pasdar's disclosures prompted Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., to send a letter to fellow House members urging a delay in any telco immunity vote until the White House comes forward with additional information about the carriers' role in the spying program.

"[Bush] continues to ask members of this body ... to vote in the dark," the letter states. "Because legislators should not vote before they have sufficient facts, we continue to insist that all House members be given access to the necessary information ... to make an informed decision on their vote."

The EFF's Cohn added: "Retroactive immunity for telecom companies now ought to be off the table in the ongoing FISA debate."

The carriers insist that the real issue is between the White House and Congress. "Current law ... provides a complete defense to any provider who in good faith relies on a statutory authorization," AT&T wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to lawmakers. "If the government advises a private company that a disclosure is authorized by statute, a presumption of regularity attaches."

Bush told reporters Feb. 21 on Air Force One as he traveled back from a trip to Africa: "I would just tell you there's no compromise on whether these phone companies get liability protection. The American people understand we need to be listening to the enemy."

The carriers contend they relied on existing federal, state and local laws and assurances from the highest level of government to provide access to consumers' personal telephone calls and e-mail without a subpoena. The carriers' cooperation with the government prompted more than 40 civil lawsuits claiming that the carriers violated the constitutional rights of Americans.

"In order to be able to discover the enemy's plans, we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies," Bush said Feb. 13 in praising the Senate version of the FISA renewal. "If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate; they won't help us; they won't help protect America."

The New York Times first broke the story of the administration's warrantless wiretapping in late 2005, and USA Today later reported that the National Security Agency is using information provided by telephone carriers to mine tens of millions of calling records for data.

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