US warrantless wiretapping predates 9/11

Fuel to the fire

Fresh evidence has emerged that the US government's warrantless wiretapping program predates the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Secret surveillance operations that enabled the National Security Agency (NSA) to access telecommunications traffic data have been in place since the 1990s, according to the New York Times. In an attempt to gain intelligence on narcotics traffickingThe NSA forged an uneasy alliance with telcos to gather data on phone calls and emails from the US to Latin America.

The alliance between the US government and telcos to gather call records involving thousands of US and foreign citizens was constrained by legal worries and fears of public exposure. Even so, it took until 2004 for one unnamed carrier to break ranks and refuse to provide customer data, the paper reports.

Separately, US carrier Qwest refused to provide NSA spooks with access to local communications switches (a move that would have allowed surveillance of domestic phone calls without a court order) in early 2001 - before the devastating World Trade Center attacks in September that year.

Negotiations between the NSA and AT&T in February 2001 allegedly involved replicating a New Jersey network centre to allow the US signals intelligence "access to all the global phone and email traffic that ran through it". The incident has become one aspect of a lawsuit which also brings in allegations that Verizon set up a dedicated fibre-optic line from New Jersey to a large military facility in Quantico. Spooky.

An AT&T technician at the time has provided evidence supporting the allegations. However, other AT&T technicians are due to testify that the project was confined to improving internal communications within the NSA.

News that the NSA eavesdropped on the international communications of terrorism suspects making calls from the US without warrants first emerged two years ago. The latest revelations that this was a development of a much longer running practice that also involved US domestic calls come as the Bush administration is pushing Congress to pass legislation indemnifying telecoms carriers from liability in assisting law enforcement with warrantless eavesdropping programs. Since 2005, the warrantless wiretapping program has become the topic of 40 lawsuits. ®

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