Some companies helped the NSA, but which?

Survey into domestic surveillance scheme finds no companies willing to say they participated.

This is the first in a two-part series. Part two offers a glimpse at the technical details of how the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance system seems to work.

Even after the recent scrutiny of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance project approved by President Bush, an intriguing question remains unanswered: Which corporations cooperated with the spy agency?

Some reports have identified executives at "major telecommunications companies" who chose to open their networks to the NSA. Because it may be illegal to divulge customer communications, though, not one has chosen to make its cooperation public.

Under federal law, any person or company who helps someone "intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication"--unless specifically authorized by law--could face criminal charges. Even if cooperation is found to be legal, however, it could be embarrassing to acknowledge opening up customers' communications to a spy agency.

A survey by CNET has identified 15 large telecommunications and Internet companies that are willing to say that they have not participated in the NSA program, which intercepts e-mail and telephone calls without a judge's approval.

Twelve other companies that were contacted and asked identical questions chose not to reply, in some cases citing "national security" as the reason.

Those results come amid a push on Capitol Hill for more information about the NSA's wiretapping practices. On Monday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is expected to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and President Bush and his closest allies have been stepping up their defense of the program in preparation for it.

To be sure, there are a number of possible explanations for the companies' silence. In some cases, a company's media department could have been overworked. Another possibility is the company's lawyers were unavailable or chose not to reply for unknown reasons.

Also, some survey recipients, such as NTT Communications, responded with a general statement expressing compliance "with law enforcement requests as permitted and required by law" rather than addressing the question of NSA surveillance.

Who's helping the NSA?

CNET asked telecommunications and Internet companies about cooperation with the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping scheme. We asked them: "Have you turned over information or opened up your networks to the NSA without being compelled by law?"

Adelphia CommunicationsDeclined comment
AOL Time WarnerNo [1]
AT&TDeclined comment
BellSouth CommunicationsNo
Cable & Wireless*No response
Cablevision SystemsNo
Charter CommunicationsNo [1]
Cingular WirelessNo [2]
Citizens CommunicationsNo response
Cogent Communications*No [1]
Cox CommunicationsNo
Global Crossing*Inconclusive
GoogleDeclined comment
Level 3*No response
MicrosoftNo [3]
NTT Communications*Inconclusive [4]
Qwest CommunicationsNo [2]
SAVVIS Communications*No response
Sprint NextelNo [2]
T-Mobile USANo [2]
United OnlineNo response
Verizon CommunicationsInconclusive [5]
XO Communications*No [1]
YahooDeclined comment

* = Not a company contacted by Rep. John Conyers.
[1] The answer did not explicitly address NSA but said that compliance happens only if required by law.
[2] Provided by a source with knowledge of what this company is telling Conyers. In the case of Sprint Nextel, the source was familiar with Nextel's operations.
[3] As part of an answer to a closely related question for a different survey.
[4] The response was "NTT Communications respects the privacy rights of our customers and complies fully with law enforcement requests as permitted and required by law."
[5] The response was "Verizon complies with applicable laws and does not comment on law enforcement or national security matters."

A lawsuit that could yield more details about industry cooperation is winding its way through the federal courts. Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco, sued AT&T after a report that the company had shared its customer records database--though not its network--with the NSA.

AT&T would not respond when asked whether it participated. An AT&T spokesman, Dave Pacholczyk, said: "We don't comment on matters of national security."

The survey, started Jan. 25, found that wireless providers and cable companies were the most likely to distance themselves from the NSA. Cingular Wireless, Comcast, Cox Communications, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile said they had not turned over information or opened their networks to the NSA without being required by law.

Companies that are backbone providers, or which operate undersea cables spanning the ocean, were among the least likely to respond. AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Global Crossing, Level 3, NTT Communications, SAVVIS Communications and Verizon Communications chose not to answer the questions posed to them.

The New York Times reported on Dec. 24 that the NSA has gained access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. But "the identities of the corporations involved could not be determined," the newspaper added.

At the water's edge
Analysts and historians who follow the intelligence community have long said the companies that operate submarine cables--armored sheaths wrapped around bundles of fiber optic lines--surreptitiously provide access to the NSA.

"You go to Global Crossing and say...once your cable comes up for air in New Jersey or on the coast of Virginia, wherever it goes up, we want to put a little splice in, thank you very much, which NSA can do," said Matthew Aid, who recently completed the first volume in a multiple-volume history of the NSA. "The technology of getting access to that stuff is fairly straightforward."

Aid was citing Global Crossing as an example, not singling it out. Global Crossing describes itself as an Internet backbone network that shuttles traffic for about 700 telecommunications carriers, mobile operators and Internet service providers. According to the International Cable Protection Committee, the company has full or partial ownership of several trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cables.

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