Snowden Documents Reveal AT&T’s 'Extreme Willingness to Help' NSA Domestic Spy Program

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Jeff Larson, data editor at ProPublica, spoke about the story he co-authored with the New York Times/ProPublica titled "AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale" -- in which the telecommunications giant collaborated with the NSA in surveillance efforts. "We found that AT&T provides the NSA with access to at least 17 of its Internet access hubs on U.S. soil," Larson told Amy Goodman. "So that includes things like cable landings, where transoceanic cables come out of the ocean, to different facilities within the United States. And they provide the NSA with large amounts of data, not only foreign-to-foreign, but also foreign-to-domestic and purely domestic data including cellphone records."

Below is an interview with Larson, followed by a transcript:

AMY GOODMAN: Documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have exposed how extensively the NSA relied on telecommunications giant AT&T for its vast spying operations. Records described by The New York Times and ProPublica laud AT&T’s "extreme willingness to help" the NSA’s spying efforts. According to the piece, the company supplied access to billions of emails flowing across its domestic networks and technical aid in carrying out a secret order allowing the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the headquarters of the United Nations—an AT&T customer. In 2013, the NSA’s top-secret budget for its partnership with AT&T was reportedly more than twice that of the next largest program.

Democracy Now! asked an AT&T representative to join us on the program, but they declined. An AT&T spokesperson sent us a note saying, quote, "We do not provide information to any investigating authorities without a court order or other mandatory process other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence. For example, in a kidnapping situation we could provide help tracking down called numbers to assist law enforcement," unquote.

Well, to talk more about the significance of these latest revelations, we’re joined by two guests. In San Francisco, Mark Klein is with us, a technician with AT&T for 22 years. In 2006, he blew the whistle on AT&T’s cooperation with the National Security Agency by leaking internal documents that revealed the company had set up a secret room in its San Francisco office to give the NSA access to its fiber-optic Internet cables. Here in New York, we’re joined by Jeff Larson, data editor at ProPublica. He co-authored the New York Times/ProPublica piece headlined "AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale."

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeff, let’s start with you. Explain what you found in the Snowden documents.

JEFF LARSON: So what we found is we found a partnership between AT&T and NSA that was extremely close, highly collaborative, and characterized by the partner AT&T’s extreme willingness to help.

AMY GOODMAN: So, go further into that. What exactly did you find?

JEFF LARSON: So, basically, we found that—through a bit of sleuthing, we found that AT&T provides the NSA with access to at least 17 of its Internet access hubs on U.S. soil. So that includes things like cable landings, where transoceanic cables come out of the ocean, to different facilities within the United States. And they provide the NSA with large amounts of data, not only foreign-to-foreign, but also foreign-to-domestic and purely domestic data including cellphone records.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain why U.S. companies and the cables that they lay are so significant all over the world. It’s not just a U.S. operation.

JEFF LARSON: Right, exactly. So, the Internet is largely operated through the U.S., right? It was originally the ARPANET, right? So it’s all of the infrastructures in the U.S. So, an email that maybe is going from France to Germany has a good chance of traversing the United States. And this is where AT&T comes in. AT&T operates—is a tier-1 provider, operates the big fat pipes that make up the Internet. And what AT&T gave the NSA was access to what they call their "Common Backbone," which was in—was part of the Mark Klein declaration.

AMY GOODMAN: And why single out AT&T? What do the documents show?

JEFF LARSON: So, it shows that the Fairview partnership, which is the codename between—for the partnership between the NSA and AT&T, is much larger than the second-largest program, which is Stormbrew, which includes Verizon. So that only has a handful of access points. What we see in the Fairview documents is we see this extreme willingness to help. We see them handing over, you know, internal plans for the United Nations’ network. We see them—they’re often the first ones to boot up new spying capabilities for the NSA. And also, in some cases, they even check the work for Stormbrew, which includes Verizon.

AMY GOODMAN: And Fairview, they’re using a codename?

JEFF LARSON: Yeah, that’s a codename.

AMY GOODMAN: This is NSA, is using a codename?

JEFF LARSON: Yes, this is NSA’s codename for the relationship between AT&T and the NSA.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you figure it out? How do you know? Did they ever say directly AT&T?

JEFF LARSON: They never said directly AT&T in the documents. We were able to work back from a number of highly technical, jargony words and acronyms to the fact that those acronyms are only used at AT&T. We also were able to correlate real-world events, like a fiber-optic cable going down during the Japanese earthquake, to the fact that AT&T operates those facilities. In Verizon’s case, for Stormbrew, we were able to look at FCC records to confirm that Verizon operates those particular undersea cables.

AMY GOODMAN: Are they still doing it?

JEFF LARSON: It’s hard to tell. The documents cover the period from 2003 to 2013. And after 2013, with the Snowden revelations, we know a couple things have changed. So there was the USA FREEDOM Act, which, in November, will put an end to the bulk calling records, like the cellphone records. We don’t know if it’s continuing apace as it was in 2013, but it stands to reason that such a massive apparatus wouldn’t just be turned off overnight.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the kind of wording. You refer to directions of how NSA, government workers should go into AT&T plants or facilities.

JEFF LARSON: Right. So what characterizes the Fairview program is that it’s a collaboration. They call it a collaboration. They remind NSA employees that if they are going into AT&T facilities, to be mindful of the fact that this is a contractual relationship, not—I mean, this is not a contractual relationship, this is a partnership. Right? So it’s a partnership between AT&T and NSA. In the U.N. case, again, they’re working hand in hand to decode data, to help NSA enable spying of them.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about the United Nations. Where does it fit into this picture?

JEFF LARSON: So, the NSA got a court order to basically spy on every bit of traffic going through the United Nations. The NSA engineers had a little bit of trouble decoding that data, so AT&T engineers helped, worked in concert with NSA engineers to decode that data. And it’s a large amount of data. It’s basically everything, a full-take access to everything flying around the United Nations.

AMY GOODMAN: Who gave this order?

JEFF LARSON: It’s unclear from the documents. They got a court order. I would assume that it’s the—like all things court order-related when you’re talking about the NSA, it’s the secret intelligence court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which only hears the government’s arguments, and all of their court decisions are secret.

AMY GOODMAN: So, AT&T is helping the NSA spy on every person in the U.N. headquarters, reading email. How far does it go? Listening in on phone conversations?

JEFF LARSON: It had come out before that they’re also looking at the video conference systems at the United Nations. In 2013, Barack Obama did publicly announce that he would stop spying on the United Nations. We don’t know—like everything else, because the documents end at 2013, we don’t know whether or not that actually happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Jeff Larson, who’s with ProPublica, who is one of the co-authors of the big piece in The New York Times called "AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale."

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