Why was the NSA trying to enlist the telecoms in a surveillance program before 9/11?
The National Journal
's Shane Harris digs deeper
into what has emerged in recent days about Qwest's role in that earlier NSA effort:
A former White House official, who at the time was involved in network defense and other intelligence programs, said that the early 2001 NSA proposal to Qwest was, "Can you build a private version of Echelon and tell us what you see?" Echelon refers to a signals intelligence network operated by the NSA and its official counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
The NSA realized that it was blind to many of the new online threats and to who was using the privately owned telecom networks, and it thought that Qwest was in a position to help. The agency needed better intelligence in the face of a burgeoning Internet, and Qwest was then building a high-speed network for phone and Internet traffic that had caught the attention of senior intelligence officials. The NSA, in effect, wanted Qwest to be the agency's online eyes and ears.
Another source said that the NSA wanted to analyze the calls, e-mails, and other transmissions crossing Qwest's lines, to detect patterns of suspicious activity. Telecom carriers routinely monitor their networks for fraudulent activity, the former White House official noted, and so the companies "have an enormous amount of intelligence-gathering" capability. They don't have to target individual customers to "look for wacky behavior," or "groups communicating with each other in strange patterns." That information could augment intelligence that the NSA and other agencies were gathering from other sources, the former official said. . . .
Qwest's then-chief executive officer, Joseph Nacchio, rejected the NSA's request. "He didn't want to go along with that," and his refusal was not greeted warmly in the intelligence community, the former White House official said.