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Ring of fire

The deadbeat FBI fails to pay its phone bills and jeopardizes its wiretapping program
January 23, 2008 2:03:26 PM

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An ugly squabble between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the nation’s biggest phone companies has, in one nasty blow, recast the image of all the entities involved. It will now be difficult not to think of the FBI as a deadbeat and hypocritical agency, nor of the phone giants as disloyal and hypocritical dollar chasers, thanks to a problem concerning payment for the FBI’s wiretap program.

The reason that the nation’s top phone companies stopped spying on their customers, it turns out, was not due to a sudden fit of conscience, ethics, or loyalty. Rather, when the FBI stopped paying its phone bill for wiretapping services, the phone companies stopped performing their patriotic duty, ceased serving their government masters, and focused instead (dare we say predictably?) on their corporate pocketbooks.

(Recall that the companies had relied on a claim of patriotism when seeking to defend themselves against criticism and lawsuits for unlawful invasion of customers’ privacy. This was the telecommunications industry’s mantra when it lobbied Congress for immunity from such lawsuits.)

And so we are wronged once again, this time by the knowledge that our telecommunications providers betrayed us not out of idealism nor duty, but for money.

The FBI, by not paying its bills for wiretapping services, likewise put the lie to the notion that our national security depends upon warrantless snooping. Yeah, it’s a great weapon for detecting terrorists in our midst, say the Feds, but not worth paying for. And then, when the FBI found it necessary to defend its disastrous bookkeeping — something the Department of Justice (DOJ) has indicted many an individual or corporation for — it sought cover from a supposedly “independent” outside auditor that turned out not to be quite so independent.

But we’re getting ahead of our story.

Patriots for hire
After years of vocal protest, privacy advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) finally got their wish: part of the federal government’s warrantless surveillance program has begun to unravel. The major telephone companies announced on January 10 that they would no longer cooperate with the FBI’s wiretapping program. One would think that civil libertarians are rejoicing over the news. But the more one learns about the true reasons behind the wiretapping program’s partial demise, the more disillusioned one becomes.

First, let’s consider the craven and profit-driven actions of executives at AT&T Corp., BellSouth Corp., and Verizon Telecommunications. All three companies complied with the hyper-secret National Security Agency’s unprecedented order to build a vast database of customer calling records sometime after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though the agency had not obtained a wiretap warrant in accordance with the rather clear procedures set out in federal-communications privacy statutes. A fourth telecom giant, Qwest Communications, refused because of “a disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process,” according to a statement released in May 2006 by an attorney for the company’s former chief executive, Joseph Nacchio. In 2005, in what many legal pundits have called a retaliatory prosecution, Nacchio was charged with insider trading. A jury convicted him on 19 of 42 counts and he faces six years in prison, pending appeal.

When EFF filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T for violating its consumers’ privacy, the company claimed that complying with the government’s requests (or orders?) was its patriotic duty. But in a maneuver that gives new credence to Samuel Johnson’s quip that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” the telecoms decided to stop performing that duty this month when the checks ceased to roll in. A recent audit of the FBI by inspector general Glenn A. Fine found that, of 990 bills for telecommunication surveillance in five unidentified FBI field offices, more than half were unpaid.

And just to show the true shallowness of the telecommunications giants’ patriotic ardor, one notes that the maximum unpaid bill for wiretaps came to roughly $60,000 per field office (needless to say, a minuscule fraction of AT&T’s multi-billion-dollar budget).

It remains to be seen if the telecoms will be reprimanded for their betrayal. Congress granted the companies amnesty from being sued civilly by the customers whose privacy was compromised by the Protect America Act of 2007 (incidentally, the best example of Orwellian doublespeak since the Patriot Act). But that amendment will be reconsidered in February at the close of the presidential-primary season. In a statement delivered on the Senate floor a few days before Christmas, Democratic senator Harry Reid of Nevada, perhaps spurred on by Democratic colleague Connecticut senator Chris Dodd’s eloquent defense of privacy rights, spoke out against retroactive amnesty. “I believe that it is more than appropriate to ask the courts to examine the telephone companies’ actions and to evaluate whether or not they acted properly,” he said. “Providing immunity without ever undertaking such an evaluation would send a dangerous signal that the requirements we enact prospectively may be ignored with impunity.”


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