Say Thanks to Qwest!

By Chris Floyd and Richard Kastelein

It’s not often these days that we have occasion to laud corporate behavior, but the stance taken by the telecom Qwest in resisting the Bush Administration’s covert program to ensnare every single American citizen in a vast web of telephone surveillance deserves our thanks.

Every other telecom sold out the privacy of its customers – literally so, taking money to turn over their phone records to the National Security Agency – but Qwest alone insisted on having a court order before complying with Bush’s unprecedented and “indefensible” (as Newt Gingrich put it) invasion of Americans’ personal lives and business affairs. Significantly,

Bush’s domestic spies refused to supply any formal legal justification whatsoever for their extraordinary request, beyond the implied “plenary powers” of the “Commander-in-Chief”: the novel – and equally indefensible — doctrine that the Administration had adopted as the basis of what is effectively a presidential dictatorship, beyond the reach of law.

It is, of course, a sad commentary on our times that Qwest should be praised so highly for merely obeying the law of the land. But this is what we’ve come to. Our leaders are lawless, and it is now up to every citizen including corporate citizens to embody and enact the laws and values of the Republic, on our own, until Constitutional government can be restored.

One simple act we can take is to support those who take a public stand for the law. You can say thanks to Qwest by posting a comment at

USA Today first broke the story, and now we all know: the National Security Agency has been collecting the private phone records of tens of millions of American citizens since 2001, gathering the tainted bounty of this sinister harvest into "the largest data base ever assembled in the world," as one insider put it. Under the direction of General Michael V. Hayden — the military spymaster now nominated to head the CIA — the NSA carried out this massive "black op" against the American people in total secrecy, without the court orders clearly required to obtain this information. So how did Hayden and his creepy peepers into America’s privacy get hold of the phone records?

Simple: the major U.S. telecommunications corporations — all but one — turned them over to the government, for money — your money. That’s right: the Bush Administration used your tax dollars to pay the Big Telecoms to hand over your private phone records.

From USA Today:

…The sources said the NSA made clear that it was willing to pay for the cooperation. AT&T, which at the time was headed by C. Michael Armstrong, agreed to help the NSA.

So did BellSouth, headed by F. Duane Ackerman; SBC, headed by Ed Whitacre; and Verizon, headed by Ivan Seidenberg. With that, the NSA’s domestic program began in earnest.

If you are among the multitudes who signed up, in good faith, to BellSouth, AT&T or Verizon, expecting your privacy to be protected, as required by laws going back more than seven decades, the record of every phone call you have made in the last four-and-a-half years is now in the hands of a secret government program operating without any genuine oversight or restrictions against abuse. This includes the call records of every government or corporate whistleblower, every investigative journalist digging up government corruption, every political opponent of the Administration’s policies. Imagine how useful it would be for the Bush Administration to type in the name of, say, Seymour Hersh, and find out every government insider he’s talked to on the phone for the past four years?

Rarely has such a powerful, all-pervasive tool for repression been placed in the hands of a government; and rarely has there a been a government which has proven itself less trustworthy to hold such power without abusing it.

Members of Daily Kos formed an action group to push people to recognize the gravity of Qwest’s action.

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Bush Administration decided to ignore the existing laws governing surveillance, in particular the special secret courts set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. This urge to bypass FISA is not surprising; the secret courts – which had almost never refused a single request for surveillance of terrorst or espionage suspects – had been created in response to widespread government spying on citizens in for decades, a mania for illicit intrusion that reached its height under the disgraced president Richard Nixon.

Two of the greatest proponents of these assaults on civil liberties were high-ranking minions in the Nixon Administration: Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. After Nixon’s ignominious departure, with Congress finally acting to restrain the manifold abuses of the national security system, Cheney and Rumsfeld – now Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary for Gerald Ford – buried investigations of an illegal telecommunications spy program remarkably under the butt-covering rubric of "executive privilege." The original FISA restrictions were, in fact, aimed directly at serial abusers of power like Cheney and Rumsfeld. It is no wonder that they discarded these restrictions at the first opportunity once they had returned in glory to the White House.

George W. Bush gave his full authority to the NSA program, whose ostensible purpose is to "data-mine" blind phone numbers — with no names or content of the calls divulged — in search of connections between suspected terrorists. Hayden in turn delegated the responsibility to lower-echelon shift supervisors – as in the Watergate days – further diluting the already soup-thin oversight of the operation. For years, it has been carried out in total secrecy; there is simply no way of knowing how they have used – or abused – this massive database, or what other information, such as call content, they have obtained from the phone companies, or by other means.

The Bush Administration pointedly refrained from using any existing legal mechanism in requesting the call records, when it could have very easily done so and doubtless obtained all the information it sought for the data-mining program. In the absence of any other credible explanation – beyond bland assertions of "trust us, it’s all legal" – we are certainly justified in suspecting that the Administration had purposes for the program which lay outside the scope of FISA or any other law governing domestic surveillance.

But the major telecoms were evidently unconcerned about the lack of legality. Once the NSA dangled a bit of long green in their faces, they passed over the call records without a by your leave. Only Qwest – the often beleaguered telecom with a checkered past and an uncertain legal future hanging over its chief – refused to cooperate without the sensible expedient of a court order. After all, that was the law, and had been since the 1930s. There is no doubt that Qwest, given the appeals to patriotism and national security in the tumultuous days after 9/11, would have willingly complied – if the request had been made in a legal manner.

Qwest’s stand is even more remarkable given the heavy pressure applied by Bush team.

From USA Today:

…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.

Aside from concerns over legality, morality and liberty, the very utility of the NSA program has also been called into question. The blunderbuss approach of harvesting millions upon millions of phone records to be churned by supercomputers seems wildly at odds with the kind of careful, precise human intelligence and investigative work required to pinpoint the deliberately scattered, deeply buried, small networks of actual terrorists out there. And the already massive extent of the program is evidently just the beginning.

From USA Today:

It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, 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.

…The usefulness of the NSA’s domestic phone-call database as a counterterrorism tool is unclear. Also unclear is whether the database has been used for other purposes.

"Other purposes" is the operative phrase here. Because "data-mining" for terrorists in giant phone record banks is like trying to find microscopic needles in an ever-growing haystack. It is, in a word, impossible, according to expert to Bruce Schneier from Wired Magazine.

This unrealistically accurate system will generate 1 billion false alarms for every real terrorist plot it uncovers. Every day of every year, the police will have to investigate 27 million potential plots in order to find the one real terrorist plot per month.

Raise that false-positive accuracy to an absurd 99.9999 percent and you’re still chasing 2,750 false alarms per day — but that will inevitably raise your false negatives, and you’re going to miss some of those 10 real plots.

This isn’t anything new. In statistics, it’s called the “base rate fallacy,” and it applies in other domains as well. For example, even highly accurate medical tests are useless as diagnostic tools if the incidence of the disease is rare in the general population.

Terrorist attacks are also rare, any “test” is going to result in an endless stream of false alarms. This is exactly the sort of thing we saw with the NSA’s eavesdropping program: the New York Times reported that the computers spat out thousands of tips per month.

Every one of them turned out to be a false alarm. And the cost was enormous — not just for the FBI agents running around chasing dead-end leads instead of doing things that might actually make us safer, but also the cost in civil liberties.

The fundamental freedoms that make our country the envy of the world are valuable, and not something that we should throw away lightly.

So again, we are left with the question: What is the NSA program really about? Who are they really spying on? Remember, we are dealing with an Administration that has already declared – in open court, in Congressional testimony, in internal memos, in executive orders and "presidential signing statements" – that the president has the "inherent authority" as Commander-in-Chief during "wartime" to ignore or reinterpret any law that might restrict his "plenary powers." We have seen this pernicious doctrine in action for years: it underlies the use of torture throughout the global system of detention centers, secret prisons and the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay that Bush has set up; it underlies Bush’s outrageous claim that he can apprehend anyone on earth and hold them indefinitely, without charges or trial, simply by declaring them, on his own authority, an "enemy combatant," a "terrorist" or even a "suspected terrorist."

(For example, the Bush Administration has declared in open court that the U.S. government would be justified in capturing and holding a "little old lady in Switzerland" if she unwittingly gave money to a charity used as a front by terrorists. Deputy Attorney General Brian Boyle made the assertion in a hearing on Dec. 1, 2004, adding the chilling words: "Someone’s intention is clearly not a factor that would disable detention." This admittedly innocent little old lady would then be subjected to a military tribunal, which alone would decide "whether to believe her and release her" – or keep her locked up.)

So we are dealing with an Administration that openly admits that innocent people can be "legimately" swept up in its vast covert nets and subjected to indefinite imprisonment at the mercy of a military tribunal. And we are supposed to believe that these same officials, willing to go to such draconian lengths, are acting with scrupulous circumspection when handling the private phone records of millions of American citizens? We are supposed to believe they are using this gargantuan NSA program solely to ferret out a few terrorists?

From USA Today:

…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 are not being handed over as part of NSA’s domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

The NSA phone-spy program, which we are now told is only the "tip of the iceberg", is designed to identify social networks – of any kind. It is far too large to have been created solely to find a few terrorists. It beggars belief – and belies the evidence of the Administration’s behavior over the past five years – to assume that other "social networks" are not also being targeted by the program: Democrats and other political opponents, internal dissidents, activist groups, journalists…basically anyone who is against Bush and the way he is fighting his self-declared, never-ending "War on Terror."

But the dictatorial powers being claimed under the aegis of this "War" are not new measures in response to an unprecedented emergency – they are old abuses long championed by the most powerful elements in the Bush Administration. These powers of surveillance, secrecy and repression of dissent were being systematically restored by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld junta long before 9/11.

In the end, the NSA program is not about "national security" or fighting terrorists. It is just another front in a long-running war against the liberties of the American people: freedoms which are despised and feared by elites who believe that their power and privilege are the only genuine "national interests."

Who knows? Tomorrow we may see Qwest in collusion with these elites on some other front. But right now, in this fight, they have been a champion of liberty and deserve our thanks. So go show them some love. But in the words of the late, great Johnny Cash: keep your eyes wide open all the time.

Blog Roundup


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *