It would be difficult to say whose e-mail, text messages or Internet phone calls the government is monitoring at any given time, but according to a former AT&T employee, the government has warrantless access to a great deal of Internet traffic should they care to take a peek.
As information is traded between users it flows also into a locked, secret room on the sixth floor of AT&T's San Francisco offices and other rooms around the country -- where the U.S. government can sift through and find the information it wants, former AT&T employee Mark Klein alleged Wednesday at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
"An exact copy of all Internet traffic that flowed through critical AT&T cables -- e-mails, documents, pictures, Web browsing, voice-over-Internet phone conversations, everything -- was being diverted to equipment inside the secret room," he said.
Klein, who worked for more than 20 years as a technician at AT&T, said that the highly secretive electronics-focused National Security Agency began working with telecom companies to gain wholesale access to vast amounts of data traveling over the Internet.
Whistleblower: AT&T Allows U.S. to Spy on Internet Data
Klein was on Capitol Hill Wednesday attempting to convince lawmakers not to give a blanket, retroactive immunity to telecom companies for their secret cooperation with the government.
He said that as an AT&T technician overseeing Internet operations in San Francisco, he helped maintain optical splitters that diverted data en route to and from AT&T customers.
One day he found that the splitters were hard-wired into a secret room on the sixth floor.
Klein said only a management-level employee with NSA security clearance was allowed inside, but documents he obtained form AT&T showed that highly sophisticated data mining equipment was kept there.
Conversations he had with other technicians and the AT&T documents led Klein to believe there are 15 to 20 such sites nationwide, including in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and Atlanta, he said.
AT&T: Protecting Our Customers' Privacy
AT&T and government lawyers have argued the documents Klein took are proprietary and have tried, as part of a class action filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in January 2006, to reclaim them. In doing so AT&T also verified their authenticity, EFF attorneys argued today.
AT&T spokesperson Susan Bean responded to inquiries about the lawsuit and the allegations by Klein in an e-mail statement today: "AT&T is fully committed to protecting our customers' privacy. We do not comment on matters of national security."
A federal judge dismissed claims by government lawyers, who are arguing the case instead of AT&T because of national security implications, that the company is immune to lawsuit for the access to data they provided to the government. An appeal of that order is pending and has temporarily halted the lawsuit.
But Congress is considering a proposal to grant retroactive, blanket immunity for telecom companies for their cooperation with the government as part of a bill that would revamp the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and give government spy agencies more latitude in their information gathering.
The House of Representatives has so far rejected the immunity, but the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a bill last month that would allow it. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to consider that bill at a meeting Thursday.
Key Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have expressed concern with any sort of immunity, but not dismissed it.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the committee, has suggested that Congress consider indemnifying telecom companies against damages.
"At least that would allow the lawsuit to go forward," EFF attorney Kevin Bankston said today.
President Bush has said he will veto any bill that does not include the immunity for telecom companies.
When the New York Times reported in late 2005 on the warrantless domestic wiretapping program run by the NSA, Klein, who had recently retired from AT&T, said he became "frustrated."
Klein linked up with the EFF in 2006 and is cooperating in their lawsuit.
'Wholesale, Dragnet Surveillance'
"Its not the way a warrant should work that you take everything and sift away what you don't want," Klein said.
"Wiretapping in the past has always been a retail operation as opposed to a wholesale one. The government has had to determine who they want to target before they can target them," Bankston said.
In May 2006, Bush defended the NSA's warrantless programs by saying the government was not mining for data and only targeting foreign terrorists and al Qaeda operatives.
"First, our international activities strictly target al Qaeda and their known affiliates. Al Qaeda is our enemy, and we want to know their plans. Second, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval," he said.
"Third, the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat. Fourth, the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates. So far we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil," he said.
But Brian Reid, a former Stanford electrical engineering professor who appeared with Klein, said the NSA would logically collect phone and Internet data simultaneously because of the way fiber optic cables are intertwined.
He said the way the system described by Klein suggests a "wholesale, dragnet surveillance."
Bankston argued that simply by diverting the data, even if it did not look at specific messages, the government violates Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure without probable cause.
Of the major telecom companies, only Qwest is known to have rejected government requests for access to data.
Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, appealing an insider trading conviction last month, said the government was seeking access to data even before Sept. 11.
Wednesday's press conference was conducted on Capitol Hill in the Senate Banking Committee's hearing room. The chairman of the Banking Committee, Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Dodd, who is also running for president, has said he will use procedural measures to block any legislation that offers retroactive immunity to telecom companies.