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Telecom companies let NSA spy on phone calls
AT&T, Sprint, MCI, cooperate with U.S. agency
Leslie Cauley and John Diamond, USA Today
The Arizona Republic
Monday, February 6, 2006 

The National Security Agency has secured the cooperation of large telecommunications companies, including AT&T, MCI and Sprint, in its efforts to eavesdrop without warrants on international calls by suspected terrorists, according to seven telecommunications executives.

The executives asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the program.  AT&T, MCI and Sprint had no official comment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings today on the government's program of monitoring international calls and e-mails of a domestic target without first obtaining court orders.  At issue:  whether the surveillance is legal, as President Bush insists, or an illegal intrusion into the lives of Americans, as lawsuits by civil libertarians contend.

In domestic investigations, phone companies routinely require court orders before cooperating.

A majority of international calls are handled by long-distance carriers AT&T, MCI and Sprint.  All three own "gateway" switches capable of routing calls to points around the globe.

AT&T was recently acquired by SBC Communications, which has adopted the AT&T name as its corporate moniker.  MCI, formerly known as WorldCom, was recently acquired by Verizon.  Sprint recently merged with Nextel.

The New York Times, which disclosed the clandestine operation in December, previously reported that telecommunications companies have been cooperating with the government, but it did not name the companies involved.

Decisions about monitoring calls are made in four steps, according to two U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the program who insisted on anonymity because it remains classified: 

-  Information from U.S. or allied intelligence or law enforcement points to a terrorism-related target either based in the United States or communicating with someone in the United States.

-  Using a 48-point checklist to identify possible links to al-Qaida, one of three NSA officials authorized to approve a warrantless intercept decides whether the surveillance is justified.

-  Technicians work with phone company officials to intercept communications pegged to a particular person or phone number.  Telecommunications executives say MCI, AT&T and Sprint grant the access to their systems without warrants or court orders.  Instead, they are cooperating on the basis of oral requests from senior government officials.

-  If the surveillance yields information about a terror plot, the NSA notifies the FBI or other appropriate agencies but does not always disclose the source of its information.

The two intelligence officials said that number has been whittled down to about 600 people in the United States who have been targeted for repeated surveillance since the Sept. 11 attacks.