The NSA's Massive Database & The Fight to Stop It

05/11/2006 12:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been waiting for a story like this for months.

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USA Today is reporting that top telephone companies are helping the NSA build a "massive database of Americans' phone calls," with a goal of tracking "every call ever made" in the U.S.

This is the Bush Administration's surveillance program exposed. It's not about terrorists. It's not about security. And it's definitely not about that Constitution that administrations are supposed to follow.

It is about massive, big brother surveillance of law abiding American citizens. As USA Today explains:

"The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans -- most of whom aren't suspected of any crime" (emphasis added).

The article says AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth are all involved. That's one reason that people have been calling on AT&T to come clean on its role in warrantless spying for weeks, as I explained in a recent post. AT&T has caught extra flak because a former technician came forward as a whistleblower, exposing how the company helps the NSA conduct massive, vacuum cleaner domestic spying without warrants. The New York Times reported that the technician has internal company documents describing "a mysterious room at the AT&T Internet and telephone hub in San Francisco" filled with "equipment capable of monitoring a large quantity of e-mail messages, Internet phone calls, and other Internet traffic."

Congress should subpoena the CEOs of these companies to explain exactly what the Bush Administration asked them to do, and what kind of domestic spying they are assisting.

President Nixon used to say if the president does something, it's not illegal. The Nixon standard was widely rejected. Is the Bush standard that if the President asks you to break the law, then it's not illegal either? I think that would be widely rejected too.

And that's not the only domestic spying news today. Seventy two members of Congress just filed papers in support of the Center for Constitutional Rights' challenge to the domestic spying program (CCR v. Bush). I have been working on that case for months, and this action is not only a sign of growing support, it also rebuts the administration's claim that somehow Congress declared open season for surveillance when it authorized the war in Afghanistan. The brief reiterates that Congress made all warrantless spying illegal and the NSA is currently breaking the law. Then it runs through the legislative history of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan, proving that Congress never authorized the warrantless spying program. Like our lawsuit, the U.S. Representatives' brief asks the court halt the illegal spying program immediately.

It was organized by Congressman John Conyers, the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee. (As HuffPo readers know, that committee has jurisdiction over wiretapping laws and impeachment.) Here's what he said about it today:

"...this Congress dealt with this issue authoritatively almost 30 years ago - warrantless spying on American soil is flatly prohibited. As members of Congress, we have a special interest in ensuring that the President faithfully executes the laws we have passed. The Church Committee spent years investigating the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens in the mid-1970s. After receiving testimony from hundreds of witnesses, issuing 14 reports and collecting over 50,000 pages of records, this Congress carefully crafted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. To this date, that law stands as the exclusive and exhaustive authority to wiretap Americans in the name of fighting terrorism."

We will keep arguing these points in federal court. The defendants in our case don't even deny that the program does warrantless surveillance. President Bush and General Hayden have admitted they are spying on Americans without warrants, and we will keep fighting to stop them.

UPDATE RESPONSE TO READERS: There have been some interesting exchanges in the comment section, with "justanotherjoe" asking whether it is acceptable for the NSA to use these phone records if the content of calls is never subject to surveillance. This is a complicated issue, but here is my response:

The Supreme Court, rightly or wrongly, has said that records of numbers you dial are not protected by the Fourth Amendment because you are voluntarily turning that information over to the phone company in order to allow them to route your call, and thus have no expectation of privacy in them (Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 1979). Congress disagreed, however, and passed a law in 1986 restricting government access to such records in the absence of a warrant, other court order, or consent of the subject of the search (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act). Why should you be concerned? Well, first of all, the government can tell an awful lot about you from looking at calling patterns -- for instance, when you were home to make phone calls, who you talk to and associate with, etc. I certainly don't want anyone else knowing that stuff; I have an expectation of privacy in my phone records (who I am calling, and when) as well as the contents of my calls. But more to the point, today's story shows that the sort of surveillance the NSA has been carrying out at home since 9-11 is broad-brush, suspicionless surveillance of ordinary Americans, not, as their spin doctors have put it, "terrorist surveillance." (That's why Sen. Leahy is asking if tens of millions of Americans are involved involved with Al Qaeda.) The reporters covering the original NSA story have said that the NSA Program involves data-mining of a vast scale, whereby the government uses computers to read everyone's emails and listen to phone calls with voice recognition; the facts revealed so far in the case against AT&T -- and another case in Oregon -- show that domestic calls were subject to the same scrutiny as international calls. So today's news is another little bit of the iceberg exposed.

UPDATE II: "Ahoon" wrote that more members of Congress should support CCR v Bush, since 72 members is only "about 15%." Over at, Andrew Cohen makes a similar point:

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a left-leaning group, announced today that 72 members of Congress had expressed support for the CCR's efforts to challenge the NSA spying program in court. If my math is correct, and sometimes it is, that is about one-eighth of the total number of pols in the House and Senate. That's not nearly good enough and at least Sen. Leahy has the courage to say so.

There is time for more members of Congress to support CCR in challenging President Bush's illegal domestic spying, and readers can write to their members about this issue, or write to AT&T about its role in the NSA spying.