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Wiretapping at Its Worst

A revolving door between the telecommunications industry and federal government ensures that the doors to your personal privacy are wide open.
 
 
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It seemed like shocking news last week when the telecommunications giant Verizon admitted it has readily allowed warrantless national security investigators to browse customer records on thousands of occasions. But given the revolving door between the telecom industry and federal government, no one should be surprised by their cozy relationship.

According to OpenSecrets.org, a website run by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., the worlds are well-connected: There is no shortage of government officials who once worked in the telecommunications industry, and no shortage of telecommunications industry execs who once worked for the government.

Many of the men and women who have hopped the fence -- sometimes more than once -- between government and telecom have done so via predictable channels. It's not uncommon, for instance, for aides and commissioners to the Federal Communications Commission to come from or move on to careers in telecommunications. It's arguably not even that surprising. But there are also the executives -- like those who fill Verizon's ranks -- who have spent years fighting for the government's right to pry into consumer data.

In an Oct. 12 letter to Democratic lawmakers, Randal S. Milch, senior vice president and general counsel to Verizon, admitted that, in tens of thousands of instances over the last two years, his company has provided government officials with subscriber information without court orders. According to the letter, that information has included subscriber names and addresses, local and long-distance telephone connection records, and methods and sources of payment.

Milch serves alongside William P. Barr, who is executive vice president and general counsel to Verizon. In Barr's past life, he was an analyst for the CIA who went on to serve as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and as the attorney general of the United States under President George H.W. Bush. Throughout his esteemed government career, and well after he'd moved into the telecommunications industry, Barr has shown a voracious appetite for government surveillance.

In 1995, after he'd made the switch, he told the House Judiciary Committee that "emergency wiretap authority exists under current law with respect to a range of criminal activity. Existing emergency authority has been sparingly used, and I am not aware of any indication of abuse. It is clearly appropriate that the same emergency authority that applies with respect to Mafia conspiracies also applies to terrorist conspiracies."

He argued that, when conducting surveillance, a single subpoena issued by the government should be sufficient to cover multiple telephones registered to an individual target. "It is impractical to identify a particular phone. This is perfectly in line with constitutional protections. After all, the right to privacy guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment is an individual's right to privacy; it is not an inanimate object's right to privacy. Roving wiretaps targeted at particular suspects rather than specific phones should not cause alarm."

Barr's testimony was cited in the House Report on the Comprehensive Antiterrorism Act of 1995 as justification for an expansion of federal wiretapping authority. The following year, he advocated on behalf of the use of intelligence information in domestic law enforcement proceedings in cases of suspected terrorism.

And that was all before Sept. 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, Barr re-emerged on Capitol Hill to lend his support to controversial measures such as beefed up executive privilege, broadened Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authority, and both the use of military tribunals in specific and the USA PATRIOT Act more broadly.

Barr represents perhaps the most overtly wiretap-friendly liaison between the telecom industry and the government of the United States, but he's far from alone at Verizon. Peter Davidson, Verizon's chief lobbyist, was once a staffer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and served as general counsel to former Texas Rep. Dick Armey when Armey was House majority leader.

Additionally, a former senior vice president at Verizon, Edward Whelan, was from mid 2001 to 2004 the principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel. He clerked as well for Justice Antonin Scalia and, later, wrote an article defending Justice Samuel Alito who, in memos that eerily presage the current FISA debate, argued “an executive branch official who authorized the illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens without a warrant should be immune from lawsuits,” according to Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe . The Alito memos were written in his Justice Department days, before he was appointed to the Supreme Court.

None of this necessarily means Verizon and other telecom firms can't be trusted to honor our privacy and the law. But it does show that if the executive branch wants access to nominally protected information, or the Congress wants to expand the legal framework in which surveillance is allowed, the doors are wide open and their friends are eagerly waiting.

Brian Beutler is the Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium, a network of progressive media organizations, including AlterNet.