June 30 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. National Security Agency asked AT&T Inc. to help it set up a domestic call monitoring site seven months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, lawyers claimed June 23 in court papers filed in New York federal court.
The allegation is part of a court filing adding AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, as a defendant in a breach of privacy case filed earlier this month on behalf of Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. customers. The suit alleges that the three carriers, the NSA and President George W. Bush violated the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and the U.S. Constitution, and seeks money damages.
“The Bush Administration asserted this became necessary after 9/11,” plaintiff’s lawyer Carl Mayer said in a telephone interview. “This undermines that assertion.”
The lawsuit is related to an alleged NSA program to record and store data on calls placed by subscribers. More than 30 suits have been filed over claims that the carriers, the three biggest U.S. telephone companies, violated the privacy rights of their customers by cooperating with the NSA in an effort to track alleged terrorists.
“The U.S. Department of Justice has stated that AT&T may neither confirm nor deny AT&T’s participation in the alleged NSA program because doing so would cause `exceptionally grave harm to national security’ and would violate both civil and criminal statutes,” AT&T spokesman Dave Pacholczyk said in an e-mail.
U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Charles Miller and NSA spokesman Don Weber declined to comment.
Fascinating to note that the same administration that was shutting down al Qaeda investigations left and right as well as protecting the inviolability of Zacarias Moussaoui’s computer info in the run up to 9/11 was already busy violating everybody else’s rights with an unprecedented new domestic spying program. They apparently either wanted the latest info on new threats they should ignore or were just prophetically preparing for the authoritarian crackdown to come. Either way this stunning 3-day-old story remains almost as secret as the original program even though the Bloomberg wire feeds every newsroom in the land.
The NSA initiative, code-named “Pioneer Groundbreaker,” asked AT&T unit AT&T Solutions to build exclusively for NSA use a network operations center which duplicated AT&T’s Bedminster, New Jersey facility, the court papers claimed. That plan was abandoned in favor of the NSA acquiring the monitoring technology itself, plaintiffs’ lawyers Bruce Afran said.
The NSA says on its Web site that in June 2000, the agency was seeking bids for a project to “modernize and improve its information technology infrastructure.” The plan, which included the privatization of its “non-mission related” systems support, was said to be part of Project Groundbreaker.
Mayer said the Pioneer project is “a different component” of that initiative.
Mayer and Afran said an unnamed former employee of the AT&T unit provided them with evidence that the NSA approached the carrier with the proposed plan. Afran said he has seen the worker’s log book and independently confirmed the source’s participation in the project. He declined to identify the employee.
On June 9, U.S. District Court Judge P. Kevin Castel in New York stopped the lawsuit from moving forward while the Federal Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington rules on a U.S. request to assign all related telephone records lawsuits to a single judge.
Robert Varettoni, a spokesman for Verizon, said he was unaware of the allegations against AT&T and declined to comment.
Earlier this week, he issued a statement on behalf of the company that Verizon had not been asked by the NSA to provide customer phone records from either its hard-wired or wireless networks. Verizon also said that it couldn’t confirm or deny “whether it has any relationship to the classified NSA program.”
Mayer’s lawsuit was filed following a May 11 USA Today report that the U.S. government was using the NSA to monitor domestic telephone calls. Earlier today, USA Today said it couldn’t confirm its contention that BellSouth or Verizon had contracts with the NSA to provide a database of domestic customer phone call records.
Jeff Battcher, a spokesman for Atlanta-based BellSouth, said that vindicated the company.
“We never turned over any records to the NSA,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’ve been clear all along that they’ve never contacted us. Nobody in our company has ever had any contact with the NSA.”
The case is McMurray v. Verizon Communications Inc., 06cv3650, in the Southern District of New York.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Andrew Harris in Chicago at aharris16 (at) bloomberg (dot) net
Last Updated: June 30, 2006 18:46 EDT