NSA may have nabbed phone records too during Salt Lake Olympics
Washington • The National Security Agency’s domestic spying during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City may have included records of phone calls in addition to the content of text messages and emails.
A top-secret inspector general’s report from 2009 — leaked to The Guardian newspaper by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden earlier this year — details an agreement between the spy agency and “Company E,” thought to be Qwest Communications, to “provide call detail records ... in support of security for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.”
That news comes in the wake of a Wall Street Journal story last week that cited unnamed officials in reporting that the NSA and the FBI teamed up with Qwest to monitor the content of all email and text messages in the Salt Lake area for less than a six-month window surrounding the Games. The NSA declined to comment on that report while a number of Utah officials involved in the Olympic operation said they were unaware of such eavesdropping.
The I.G. report, however, intimates that the NSA went even further, collecting “telephony metadata” in the Salt Lake City area around the Olympics that the agency is now obtaining nationally under secret court order for some domestic communications. The report refers to “call detail records” and says the information sought by NSA “does not concern the substance … or meaning of the communication.”
Secret police • “This is the sort of thing that we as Americans used to see happening in the Soviet Union with the KGB, in East Germany with the Stasi secret police, where the citizens had no privacy, where their government was spying on them, keeping records on them secretly,” says Rocky Anderson, who served as Salt Lake City mayor during the Games and has emerged as a fierce critic of the NSA’s actions.
“The frightening difference,” Anderson added, “is that we have the pretense in this country of constitutional protections that don’t seem to mean anything to those at the highest levels of our federal and apparently state government.”
The I.G. report says the company’s chief executive agreed to cooperate with the NSA on Feb. 11, 2002, a few days after the Olympics began in Salt Lake City.
Eight days later, the company submitted a written proposal on how it could “regularly replicate call record information” stored at Qwest, according to the report. Discussions continued into 2003, though the company’s general counsel eventually declined to work with the NSA.
The head of the NSA at the time, Gen. Michael Hayden, wrote two letters to the company asking for its help, starting on Feb. 26, 2002, according to the IG report. The Salt Lake City Olympics ran from Feb. 8 to Feb. 24, 2002.
The dates alone add questions to just what records were handed to the NSA by the company and when.
Retribution? • The I.G. report and The Wall Street Journal article also appear to conflict with arguments by former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, who fought insider-trading charges in federal court by saying his prosecution was retribution for declining to cooperate with the NSA without a court order.
Nacchio, who was convicted and is soon to be released from federal prison, met with NSA officials in early 2001 — before the 9/11 terrorist attacks — at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters about possible classified projects that could earn his company hundreds of millions of dollars, according to court records.
But those contracts disappeared, Nacchio argued, when he listened to his general counsel’s advice that he couldn’t share customers’ information without a court order. Prosecutors denied the case against Nacchio was motivated by retribution.
In “The Shadow Factory,” NSA chronicler James Bamford, notes that the NSA was upset by Qwest’s refusal to participate in its Groundbreaker program and quoted a former Qwest official saying the agency repeatedly brought it up.
“It went on for years,” the official, James Payne, said.
Bamford also notes in his book that despite Qwest’s refusal to cooperate, the NSA was able to obtain the sought-after data through a partnership with AT&T.
The NSA declined to comment on the inspector general’s report.
Nacchio, who is serving time in a New York prison, could not be reached for comment and attorneys listed on his behalf did not return calls.
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who ran the Salt Lake Organizing Committee that oversaw the Games, declined to comment through an aide.
Calls for investigation • Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has sued the government over domestic surveillance, said this week that the reports about spying during the Olympics just add to the reasons for a thorough investigation of the NSA’s practices.
“There’s a lot out there that we do know, where a picture is beginning to be painted, but if the president truly wants to have this debate as he’s repeatedly said, we need more transparency,” Opsahl said. “We need to know what’s going on now and what happened then in greater detail.”
Congress has already held hearings on the NSA’s operations, though more are likely this fall.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has called for additional hearings and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, has asked the NSA’s inspector general to answer several questions about the agency’s actions.
“The American people are questioning the NSA and the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court system,” Grassley said Wednesday. “Accountability for those who intentionally abused surveillance authorities and greater transparency can help rebuild that trust and ensure that both national security and the Constitution are protected.”