Terrorists for Phone Carrier Choice

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USA Today says it can no longer support key claims in its blockbuster May article about the National Security Agency's program of collecting customer records from major phone carriers. You'll recall that McPaper claimed AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon had contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records from their customers. BellSouth and Verizon disputed that claim soon thereafter, while AT&T has since updated its privacy policy. Now USA Today says in a note to readers that it cannot prove that BellSouth and Verizon contracted with the NSA. (The paper's claims about AT&T, as well as about Verizon subsidiary MCI, appear to be unchanged.) Says USA Today:

The denial was unexpected. USA TODAY had spoken with BellSouth and Verizon for several weeks about the substance of the report. The day before the article was published, the reporter read the sections of the article concerning BellSouth and Verizon to representatives of the companies and asked for a denial before publication.

At the time, BellSouth did not deny participation in the program, but it issued a statement saying the company "does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any government agency without proper legal authority." Verizon said that it would not comment on national security matters and that it acts "in full compliance with the law" and with respect for customers' privacy…

USA TODAY also spoke again with the sources who had originally provided information about the scope and contents of the domestic calls database. All said the published report accurately reflected their knowledge and understanding of the NSA program, but none could document a contractual relationship between BellSouth or Verizon and the NSA, or that the companies turned over bulk calling records to the NSA.

In the attached story, the Last Frontier's very senior senator says real Americans don't call long distance:

"It was not cross-city calls. It was not mom-and-pop calls," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who receives briefings as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee. "It was long-distance…"

The real loser in the retraction is Qwest Communications, which, as enquiring minds know, had briefly become the terrorists' favorite phone carrier:

Of course the leftwing nuts want to point out the brave groups 'speaking to power', so they alert the terrorists to shift all their communications over to Qwest because Qwest is not partnering with the NSA to help find potential 9-11 terrorists here in the country.

Following that, um, logic, I say a country where there's even competition for the terrorist phone dollar has still got a few moves left. God bless America!

Jacob Sullum tapped into the president's claims about the program.

Jeff Taylor crank called the major carriers.

Various Reason staffers gave the NSA an earful.

Nick Gillespie identified the most disturbing if predictable facet of the story: that most Americans seemed to think having the government survey your phone records is just jim-dandy.

NEXT: Are Failed States a Threat to America?

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  1. That’s a shame. I thought Nick had more sense than that. Conversations were not being recorded, merely who called what number.

    One of the complaints you hear, and I’ve voiced too, about this war is that, unlike WWII, other than the military and their families, there are few calls on Americans to sacrifice for the effort. Maybe that’s wise, as it appears a large part of society intends to sscrifice nothing.

  2. Stop calling it a war. The proper term is “clusterfuck”.

  3. I’d be happy to sacrifice some conveniences if it would help win the war. I would gladly put up blackout curtains. I would pull out my milkweeds and put in a victory garden. However, I’m unwilling to give up any rights to fight the Clusterfuck on Terror, since that would defeat the purpose of defeating the terrorists, and then they actually will have won (tongue determinedly not in cheek).

  4. also, I don’t see where Nick claimed that conversations were being recorded, so I’m taking The Owner’s Manual’s comments even less seriously, by which I mean they are fucking stupid.

  5. Maybe that’s wise, as it appears a large part of society intends to sscrifice nothing.

    So you’ll gladly sacrifice your privacy for an undeclared war? Go right ahead; don’t expect others to join you, however.

  6. In this case, it’s not just the invasions of privacy and the serious civil liberties problems. It’s the vast, ginormous waste of resources devoted to sifting through the gazillion pizza order haystack for that one terrorist needle. For those who don’t do metaphor: the chances of finding anything useful by reviewing every single phone bill in the country, without regard to source or destination is pretty close to zero. If we’re going to give up important freedoms, at least do it for something that might do some good.

  7. The Owner’s Manual wrote: “Maybe that’s wise, as it appears a large part of society intends to sscrifice [sic] nothing.”

    Damn straight. I’m not sacrificing one iota of anything to the “war”.

    “If you want to see the ultimate, suicidal extreme of altruism, on an international scale, observe the war in Vietnam — a war in which American soldiers are dying for no purpose whatever. This is the ugliest evil of the Vietnam War, that it does not serve any national interest of the United States — that it is a pure instance of blind, senseless, altruistic, self-sacrifical slaughter. This is the evil — not the revolting stuff the Vietniks are howling about.”

    “The Wreckage of the Consensus”, delivered as a lecture in April, 1967, reprinted in _Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal_, pg. 224 (paperback, 2nd ed. Nov. 1967).

    If the Vietnam War served *no* interest of the US, then the “War on Terror” serves even less, given that al-Q’aida cannot even muster one-tenth of one percent of the power of 1960s-era Communism.

  8. Jack,

    It is not the power they can muster, it is the power they apply. 9/11 ring a bell? 3,000 lives lost and a half trillion in GDP. Surely even libertarians understand money and economic disruption.

    It is stuff like I’m hearing here that made me leave the party.

    Back in the bad old days I used to be a communist. The Lib foreign policy prescriptions for America sound suspiciously like the communist foreign policy prescriptions for America. That foreign policy (and bad economics) was one of my reasons for leaving the left. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that Libs would take up the communist line.

  9. Back in the bad old days I used to be a communist.

    Just like the occasional H&R poster named Andrew. Why is it that the former commies are the most ones most willing to forgive any bad decisions made for the alleged purpose of defense?

    The Lib foreign policy prescriptions for America sound suspiciously like the communist foreign policy prescriptions for America.

    The Lib foreign policy presciptions for America also include free trade on a scale that would horrify commies. We know that the free flow of people, products, and information will bring about more positive change in the world than any amount of war or espionage.

  10. It was not mom-and-pop calls,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who receives briefings as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee. “It was long-distance…”

    I haven’t made a local call to my parents in 10 years. Even when I lived in LA and they were in Orange County, it was still long distance. With the ubiquity of cell phones, long distance as a different concept from local calling has all but disappeared. When you add unlimited calling plans for under $30, the increased splitting of area codes (making dialing the area code for local calls more common) a phone call is just a phone call.

    I suppose Alaska may be different because the state has one area code and long distance is really far away. But here in the continental states (where all offers are valid) it ain’t no thang.

  11. To T.O.M’s point about us not being asked to sacrifice during war: We’ve all heard this point before, and I think most people agree to some extent, with the usual example being how we were essentially asked to go shopping after 9/11 vs. being asked to save cooking grease for bombs during WW2. But we are all sacrificing right now, and I don’t just mean by the debt we are taking on (but that too). Look at historical charts of US government or US military spending over the past century or two (link below) and you’ll see the charts start with very modest spending with huge spikes during and just after the civil war, WW1 and WW2. But, after WW2, and ever since, the spending levels stayed very high and kept growing. Since the “great wars” we have been sacrificing before, during, and after every war.

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2005/sheets/hist01z1.xls

    I couldn’t find the same charts I’ve seen in the past. This table is good though. It seems most gov’t data wants to give military expenditures as a percent of GNP as opposed to “how much did we spend on bullets” in a given year. This sort of hides the amount we are spending since our modern GNP is so massive – we could spend more year after year and have it look like less. With a “dollars only” look, WWII never ended.

  12. Remember a couple of years ago, when news of the infamous “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S.” memo surfaced? Administration apologists insisted that it was understandable for the powers-that-be to overlook it because, they said, there was just SO much information to sift through that you couldn’t reasonably expect our intelligence agencies to notice such a tiny little threat as this one. The “needle in a haystack” metaphor was invoked by these same apologists.

    So if 3,000 Americans died because our intelligence agencies suck at finding a needle in a haystack, how exactly is adding more hay to the stack supposed to keep us safer?

    I’ve asked that same question on many a thread here, and have YET to hear this program’s defenders answer it. Maybe today’s the day I’ll get lucky.

  13. Oh waaah, a couple of grand worth of lives. Not like existing policy has topped that more than linda lovelace.

    Sieze the internet if you want, just expect a fight.

  14. Jennifer:

    well said

  15. So if 3,000 Americans died because our intelligence agencies suck at finding a needle in a haystack, how exactly is adding more hay to the stack supposed to keep us safer?

    Well, now it turns out more hay was being added to the stack before 3000 Americans died.

    I’ve asked that same question on many a thread here, and have YET to hear this program’s defenders answer it. Maybe today’s the day I’ll get lucky.

    Somehow, I don’t think you ought to hold your breath.

  16. Off topic: has anyone else noticed that Fox News refers to Bush as the Commander in Chief, not as the President?

  17. It’s funny that we don’t hear too much about Article I, Section 8,

    “The Congress shall have power …

    “To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;

    “To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

    “To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;

    “To provide and maintain a navy;

    “To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces … ,”

    and Article II, Section 3,

    “The President shall … take care that the laws be faithfully executed … .”

    Why should we waste our time considering the constitutional limits on the powers of the commander in chief – and the corrosive effects of ignoring those limits – when we can wet our pants over bin Laden and his fellow cave-dwellers?

    The current Green Scare is just as disgusting as the previous Red Scares. Not because of the actual threat but because of the hysterical reaction to it. Congress is supine and the Executive almost untrammeled because Republican bedwetters and Democrat nannies both think the purpose of government is not to “secure the blessings of liberty” but to promote the specific welfare of individual and group interest. We will be neither happier nor safer trading our Liberty for a putative Sicherheitsstaat.

  18. Why should we waste our time considering the constitutional limits on the powers of the commander in chief – and the corrosive effects of ignoring those limits – when we can wet our pants over bin Laden and his fellow cave-dwellers?

    Typcial NRO/Freeper/LGF Warpig: Well… the founders could not have forseen the threat of global extremism or the… the.. the… REMEMBER 9-11!!! WHY DO YOU PINKO COMMIE LIBERALS HATE AMERICA?!?!?

  19. The remorseful ex-Commies support the President and attack civil liberties because, in the end, their beliefs didn’t really change all that much. They still have starry-eyed faith in the wisdom of an all-encompassing State. Communism as an economic philosophy may have gone out of style, but authoritarism as a political philosophy is alive and well and being actively promoted by ex-Communists who insist they’ve “changed.”

  20. “It was not cross-city calls. It was not mom-and-pop calls,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who receives briefings as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee. “It was long-distance…”

    Way to give hints to the terrorists, Ted. Expect your treason charges by the end of the week.

  21. To which warpigs I would reply …

    Revolutionary War – about .06% of the male population killed; much of the country occupied by foreign troops; economy … well, it couldn’t have been good for the economy; notable political documents and legislation include the Declaration of Indpendence, Aritcles of Confederation and the Constitution

    War on Terror – about .0007% of the male population killed so far (including 9/11); no foreign troops on US soil; negligible affect on theeconomy; notable political documents include the Patriot Act, presidential signing statements and John Yoo’s memos

    Quite a distinguished record we’ve got going.

  22. It figures that the NSA gets grief for asking poor ‘widdle AT&T to provide number blocks! Next thing the NSA will have the GALL to admit they monitor RF spectrum band use as well! Gasp! As long as they’re not watching over the US satellite networks our civil libert… hold on. That sounds remarkably like, well, part of the NSA’s job description?

    Doesn’t it occur to anyone that AT&T has more personal and financial information on more Americans, in more detail, than the NSA???? Maybe this is the wrong forum, but AT&T outsources their Tier 1 broadband tech support to perfectly random call centers in India. I’m sure AT&T is extra careful not to automatically use the account ID’s as default free email addresses for new accounts. As the tier 1 techs can reset the account password, which together with the account ID is used to access the ISP end firewall, it’s lucky AT&T is moving the call centers back to the US in six months. I wonder if international calling card sales will pick up next quarter?

    So my Libertarian droogs, do you all imagine an Indian call center is likely to be owned and operated by Mother Theresa’s nuns? (serving America’s tech support needs whilst washing the feet of lepers no doubt). Hey, maybe that the guy on the phone loves you so much he’d die rather than allow your beloved American privacy to be infringed upon 10,000 miles away in corruption free India?? Right. AT&T loves the Consitution and it’s customers and freedom and puppies. Sure.

  23. “…negligible affect on theeconomy….”

    The effect on the money supply of our hysterical “defense” spending binge may not have manifested itself fully yet, but it is not “negligible.”

  24. A. Scott,
    When AT&T has the power to arrest me, I’ll worry about what AT&T does. AT&T is working with the people that can, so now I’m concerned.

  25. “When AT&T has the power to arrest me, I’ll worry about what AT&T does. AT&T is working with the people that can, so now I’m concerned.”

    Exactly.

  26. the most disturbing if predictable facet of the story: that most Americans seemed to think having the government survey your phone records is just jim-dandy.

    Uh…

    The Fedreral Government also surveys, investigates, and keeps records on my W-2, W-4, 1099-B, 1099-INT, 1099-G, and my mortgage… not to mention my auto, home and life insurance, my investments, my firearms, my credit history, my medical history- (including my ‘addictions’), etc. ad nauseum.

    Why should this one item— which is less of a threat to my ‘freedom’ than anything mentioned above!– suddenly be important to me?

    I know… GWB is the worst pResident of all times!

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