Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Given what I do, I'm constantly receiving books from publishers. And they're almost all about contemporary politics. All I really read though is history. And in most cases as far from anything contemporary as I can get. (I'm actually going to try to start doing reviews of some of these like I used to on the site.) Right now I'm reading 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Admittedly, you know how it's going to end. So that eliminates a certain element of dramatic tension. But I'm finding it a pretty good read. Peter Heather's new Fall of the Roman Empire was also quite good, though again, you sort of know how it's going to end. And I'm also going back and reading C.V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War.

But I'm going to need a few good books to read soon. So I'm looking for some recommendations. Good thick works of history, compelling narratives, distant places or the distant past. If you've got a good book to recommend, please let me know.

I think this may have gotten lost in the shuffle. But Cunningham briber Mitchell Wade really does appear to be becoming a gold mine of information for federal prosecutors.

His cooperation may even rival Jack Abramoff's in the number of players he helps bring down.

As Paul Kiel reported yesterday, in recently filed court documents, prosecutors and Wade's attorneys jointly asked the judge in Wade's case to delay his sentencing indefinitely because his cooperation seems likely to "continue for quite some time." They don't even want to discuss a sentencing date when the parties next meet in August.

It sounds like it could take going on two years for Wade to get through all the cooperating he plans to do.

TPM Reader CM reminds us that phone companies are spooky places ...

I'm certainly as mystified as anyone about the turn the USAT story has taken, though I do agree that the telcos' statements are probably parsed exceedingly fine -- and probably turn on the meaning of terms such as "provided" and "customer phone data." Voice service was never my rice bowl, but I'm not convinced that letting NSA run SS7 taps to pull CDRs wouldn't skate past their chosen verbiage.

However, as far as security clearances go, the answer is simple: telcos are filled with former intelligence community types doing engineering and software development. During my time as a consultant for CLECs (on data, not POTS, service), I worked with many ex-NSA employees and former CIA employees and contractors -- their backgrounds suited them for the kind of intensive, real-time sorting and processing of the large volume of data telcos produce. (At one company, we had so many ex-Community and NASA architects that we could have started our own orbital remote-sensing project.) Any of them could easily qualify for codeword clearance and read into the NSA program/s, even if company higher-ups could not.

As long as we're on the subject, I'm getting hints that the third party scenario mentioned below is where we're headed.

ABC's Ross sticking by his story, says the FBI is using National Security Letters to scrutinize reporters' phone records ...

Federal law enforcement sources say the National Security Letters are being used to obtain phone records of reporters at ABC News and elsewhere in an attempt to learn confidential sources who may have provided classified information in violation of the law.

The FBI says its request for reporters' phone records are made in compliance with the law.

TPM Reader DV has an interesting and good point in the post below.

For all the shilly-shallying, Verizon does appear to come right out and deny they gave any customer records to the NSA.

So what gives?

I think I've got the answer: they're lying.

No, I don't have any inside information to confirm that claim. But common sense is a marvelous thing.

If you own a business and someone accuses you of an offense that goes to the heart of your responsibility to your customers, do you wait a week to deny it? I doubt that very much.

Now, I don't know that they're lying in a precise, semantic sense. In fact, I suspect they're not. There must be some way in which what they're saying is technically true. But if it were more than technically true, they would have said it and said it more emphatically last week, before a bunch of lawsuits got filed.

USA Today's statement in support of the story is not quite as vehement as I might have expected. But they're clearly sticking by their story.

My hunch is that there's some third party involved here, a subcontractor, a private vendor, perhaps another government agency. And because of that their claims are technically true. Or, maybe, they allowed the NSA to take the data (a variety of technical means suggest themselves) rather than 'providing' it to them. Who knows.

Over at the CBS house blog, Vaughn Ververs has a post up entitled "A Story Slipping Away?" in which he suggests that, with the two denials, "there appears enough here to start wondering about the accuracy of the original USA Today story."

But I think Ververs may be ignoring the clincher nugget of information. Qwest was reportedly asked but refused. Verizon says they were never even asked. And through his lawyer, the then-CEO of Qwest confirms that he'd rebuffed the NSA request. What interest would he have in lying about that?

Unless Qwest is the phone service provider of choice for North American jihadists, I think that means Verizon's credibility is very much in doubt.

TPM Reader DV ...

Like you I'm a cynic and skeptic by nature. I, too, tend to believe the telcos care parsing their words very carefully. Yet, regardless of the talk of no contracts or agreements they still say they have not turned over customer records to the NSA. If they did, why would they say so flatly that they hadn't? No one seems to care anymore if the government says one thing and does another; it's pretty much the norm by now. But Verizon and Bell South have a lot to lose if they're caught in a lie this big. They will no doubt lose business and maybe a lot if irate customers see them making such bald faced lies. They enjoy somewhat of a good reputation, especially compared to the government. Would they really gamble with that by lying about what they've given the NSA?

Just curious what your thoughts are.


TPM Reader FZ bemoans the fact that he doesn't have the Verizon security clearance: "Some of the phone company mumbo-jumbo suggests that the reason we can't be told what the telco-NSA connection is really about is because the information is classified. So are we ordinary dopes out here supposed to assume that these phone company spokespeople have some kind of national security clearance that allows them to deal with top-secret material that we are not qualified to know about?"

More on the telco mumbo-jumbo.

This CNN story says Verizon has denied having a "contract" with the NSA to turn over customer data. Contract? Is this about synergies? The Verizon statement itself said there was no "agreement." But same difference, I think. Did we think Verizon got a small ownership stake in the NSA?

This is nice too ...

As the President has made clear, the NSA program he acknowledged authorizing against al-Qaeda is highly-classified. Verizon cannot and will not comment on the program. Verizon cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to it.

Why do I feel like this is like a grade schooler who's suddenly gotten a Junior G-Man Secret Decoder Ring?

I'll buy the idea that what the NSA is doing with this data is highly classified. The notion that what the telcos are giving to the NSA is classified strikes me as a bit rich.

I'll leave it to some telco experts to decipher the terminology and conceptual messiness that I'm sure underlies this mumbojumbo. But I'm sure that if the USA Today story was really false in any normal, reality-based sense of the term they would just say so and not resort to all the gobbledygook and parsing. And if they'd been in a position to deny it they wouldn't have waited like, what, a week to get around to it?

A number of TPM Readers have flagged stories in which at least a couple of the major phone companies are denying giving customer data to the NSA. Without going into too many details, each of these 'denials' appears to be couched in terms of 'contracts' and 'agreements' and other vague and, I suspect, intentionally misleading terms. I think they did just what USA Today said they did. They're just coming up with non-denial denials to fuzz up the issue. And they're a bit hard to unpack for those of us not sufficiently steeped in the legal and technological particulars of the telecom industry.