US citizens to NSA: can you hear me now?

USA Today has a sizeable article on the NSA's domestic spying, with a Q&A here.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told 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. [emphasis added]

Qwest is the only telecom firm to deny NSA access to its records; bully for them!

According to multiple sources, Qwest declined to participate because it was uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants.


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.

This entire program may be running afoul of the law:

Under Section 222 of the Communications Act, first passed in 1934, telephone companies are prohibited from giving out information regarding their customers' calling habits: whom a person calls, how often and what routes those calls take to reach their final destination. Inbound calls, as well as wireless calls, also are covered.

The financial penalties for violating Section 222, one of many privacy reinforcements that have been added to the law over the years, can be stiff. The Federal Communications Commission, the nation's top telecommunications regulatory agency, can levy fines of up to $130,000 per day per violation, with a cap of $1.325 million per violation.

There is much about this surveillance program that we may never learn, given the NSA's penchant for secrecy. Just this morning, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility had to terminate an investigation into another NSA domestic spying program because the NSA refused to grant investigators the necessary security clearance. As the head of the OPR wrote,

"we have been unable to make meaningful progress in our investigation because O.P.R. has been denied security clearances for access to information about the N.S.A. program."

Who watches the watchmen, indeed.

update (12:47pm):

Bush issued a defense of the NSA's telephone spying. The White House website has his full remarks, and USA Today has a summation.

After his usual "war on terror" boilerplate, Bush claimed that "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," which--at least according to the USA Today article--is blatantly untrue.

Bush then remarked that the program only targets "Al Qaeda and their known affiliates," but this doesn't square with the collection of data on tens of millions of Americans. If we have that many al Qaeda operatives, we're really in trouble. Bush also stated that:

Our most important job is to protect the American people from another attack, and we will do so within the laws of our country.

Dubya, you dipshit, you really need to re-read the Constitution. You were apparently so consumed with your Commander-in-Chief duties in Article II Section 2 that you forgot to read section 3, which states that you "shall take care that the Laws be faithfully executed," and the oath of office, which requires every president to:

faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Bush's disdain for the Constitutional separation of powers and his inability--amply demonstrated by now--to stay within legal limits should give us all pause. I fully expect his poll numbers to be in the twenties before the end of the week.

update 2 (3:02pm):

Seventy-two members of Congress have files amicus briefs in two federal courts--ACLU v. NSA (1520KB PDF) and CCR v. Bush (49KB PDF)--seeking to stop Bush's illegal NSA wiretapping. It is to be expected that not a single member of the GOP has signed either brief.

[fixed transcription error]


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