The New York Times last night published an article that should put to rest the debate over whether we live in a free country. We don't:
For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans' phone calls — parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency's hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.
The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.
The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987.
Hemisphere covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers — and includes calls dating back 26 years, according to Hemisphere training slides bearing the logo of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Some four billion call records are added to the database every day, the slides say; technical specialists say a single call may generate more than one record. Unlike the N.S.A. data, the Hemisphere data includes information on the locations of callers.
How is this even remotely legal in a country whose Constitution secures "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," meaning a search or seizure without a warrant based "upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized"? Through the pernicious PATRIOT Act innovation in unchecked police power known as "administrative subpoeanas," so called because the administration can just issue them at will. (Read Jacob Sullum's prescient piece from Sept. 11, 2003 titled "Greasing the Slippery Slope.")
It also helps that the federal government has granted telecommunications companies immunity from their own violated customers, which has allowed Big Data to be co-opted fully by the Surveillance State. And as always, the program was also enabled through its intentional concealment from the public:
"All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document," one slide says. A search of the Nexis database found no reference to the program in news reports or Congressional hearings.
Well, at least one government body screwed up the "never refer to Hemisphere" order: Harris County, Texas, home to Houston and 4.1 million residents. A Google search on "Operation Hemisphere" and "AT&T" at .gov sites turns up six records, all from Harris County. They include:
* An October 7, 2008 "Request by the Sheriff for authorization to….Accept additional 2008 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Grant funds from the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the amount of $950,000 to support the Houston Intelligence Support Center's Operation Hemisphere to interdict illegal drug trafficking."
* A January 8, 2010 "Request for approval of sole source, personal services, and other exemptions from the competitive bid process for….AT&T in the amount of $391,172 for Operation Hemisphere investigative services for the Sheriff's Department."
* A February 8, 2010 audit listing "Operation Hemisphere 2008" as a "direct program" from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, totaling $910,705.
* A July 23, 2010 "Request for approval of sole source, personal and professional services, and other exemptions from the competitive bid process for…. AT&T in the amount of $469,407 for Operation Hemisphere investigative services for the Sheriff's Department."
* A February 4, 2011 "Request for approval of sole source, Community and Economic Development, and other exemptions from the competitive bid process for…. AT&T sole source for Operation Hemisphere, formerly Hudson Hawk, investigative services for the Sheriff's Department in the amount of $924,500."
* A May 7, 2012 "Request for approval of sole source exemptions from the competitive bid process with…. AT&T in the amount of $762,111 for Operation Hemisphere investigative services for the Sheriff's Department for the period ending June 30, 2012."
So we're talking around $900,000 a year to gobble up the phone records of 1.3% of United States. And if it was up to your government, we wouldn't know anything about this at all.
The October issue of Reason, which is dropping now in subscribers' mailboxes (subscribe now!), has the cover line "BE PARANOID: They're reading your email, tracking your phone, and sending in drones." As happens all too often these days, unfolding events have turned out to be even worse than we thought. Was it really only a month ago when President Obama told Jay Leno that "There is no spying on Americans"?