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Week of 3.14.08

Transcript: Wiretap Whistleblower & Stopping Domestic Violence

BRANCACCIO: We wrapped up the week with a closed door, secret session of Congress...The first of those in a quarter century. Congress and the administration have been deadlocked over whether to give immunity to the companies that helped the government secretly spy on the e-mails and phone calls of reportedly millions of Americans. Many in Congress have been saying that before they'll grant a free pass to those companies now facing lawsuits over privacy violations, they need to have a better idea of exactly what those companies did in the name of counterterrorism. Maybe they ought to talk to a man named Mark Klein. Fae Moore produced our report.

KLEIN: I suddenly realized I'm connecting the machinery for a highly illegal state—surveillance of everybody.

BRANCACCIO: Mark Klein came forward to talk to us about the secret project he stumbled across back in 2003—part of the same government spying operation that has led to the current constitutional showdown in Washington. It was run by AT&T in a building in downtown San Francisco. Klein worked at AT&T for more than two decades....and AT&T is one of the telephone and internet companies president Bush has gone to the mat to protect.

GEORGE BUSH: (2-25-08) Our government told them that their participation was necessary, and it was....and still is....and that what we had asked them to do was legal. And now they're getting sued for billions of dollars.

BRANCACCIO: But the latest bill introduced this week in the House of Representatives does not give the president the retroactive immunity he wants for companies....firms like AT&T that are accused of turning over to government spies whatever information flowed down the internet...millions of emails, text messages, credit card transactions, what have you.

KLEIN: I knew what they were doing was making a—a complete copy of the data flow And I knew there cannot be any kind of warrant to do that.

BRANCACCIO: It was five years ago that Klein spotted these odd goings-on; the installation of a fiber optic device that experts now agree is designed to copy all of the data flowing through a major internet trunk line.

KLEIN: They use what—you run it through what's called a splitter. It's not like the—it's analogous to the splitter you have in your house when you split off a T—in your TV signal so you can have a TV signal in two different rooms

BRANCACCIO: That line contained a river of data every moment of every day. And these weren't just AT&T communications. This facility was a major hub for internet traffic on the west coast. Word around the shop was that room 641a was part of an operation by the national security agency, the folks best known for their spy satellites. Although he had no security clearance for the secret room, Klein had access to some diagrams and equipment lists. One document mentions a company called "Narus" which makes computer gear that can swallow and analyze ten gigabits of information every second. That's like going through all the information in the encyclopedia Brittanica—in a single second.

KLEIN: And I never saw that before. And I thought, well what the heck is this? So, I looked it up. And that's when I realized oh, okay. Okay, this is really a spy operation.


KLEIN: Yeah. Well, you can go to Narus's website. They boast that they sell this to intelligence agencies.

BRANCACCIO: But they do have some regular business applications. Like, a—a internet service provider could use one to figure out if one of their customers is—downloading video when he'd promised not to.

KLEIN: There are some supposedly legitimate—purposes. But if it was just an ordinary business purpose, you wouldn't need to put it in a secret room which can be accessed only by the NSA.

BRANCACCIO: Even though Klein didn't like the looks of all this copying of customer communications, he was worried about his job and did not step forward right away.

KLEIN: And I felt I was put in a impossible situation 'cause I thought this was wrong. On the other hand, I didn't wanna lose my job.

BRANCACCIO: The continued to work at AT&T for a year, but finally retired, taking the documents with him. It turned out he was not the only one on to this story. In 2005 the New York Times came out with an expose centered on the wiretapping of telephone calls. The Times piece reported that the administration was bypassing a law passed in the post-Watergate era to stop unauthorized government spying on us soil: the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act... FISA, as it's called, says no spying domestically unless you get a special warrant from a special court. What was going on in room 641a looked to him like a violation of the privacy protections suggested by the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

KLEIN: I knew that could not be under any legal warrant. They were basically giving them everything and letting them decide what to take. A splitter has no intelligence. It just splits everything. There was no selection at all.

BRANCACCIO: It's sort of like if there were a warrant for such a thing, it would be, "Search every single house in the entire city of San Francisco—

KLEIN: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: looking for activity."

KLEIN: Exactly. It's called a general warrant. And that's strictly forbidden by the Fourth Amendment. The original colonists in 1776 hated general warrants. It meant a British officer can go search a whole—ransack a whole neighborhood because he has a general warrant which doesn't specify any individual. It just gives him the right to ransack a whole neighborhood.

BRANCACCIO: The government has defended its actions. Senior intelligence officials are quoted as saying not all the data monitored is actually read. they also claim the FISA laws are dangerously outdated in an era when terrorists use cell phone and internet technology....but Mark Klein is not buying it.

KLEIN: They—they concocted, out of thin air, this argument, on, FISA needs to be updated. It's 30 years old. Technology has changed. The fact is FISA was updated to allow for the internet and modern technology in October 2001. It was called The Patriot Act. And The Patriot Act allowed the government to get information from internet service providers in emergencies to—to protect life and limb, and all that.

So what's changed between 2001 and 2007, when they suddenly started screaming—"It's an emergency. We need to update FISA"? What's changed is they got caught.

BRANCACCIO: And the telecom companies are also in a pickle. Did they just go along when the government asked them to invade privacy without a warrant or subpoena or other legal authority? If their actions are found to be illegal, they could face damages from private lawsuits that range into the billions. Klein eventually took his story about the government's secret program down the street to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that pushes to protect privacy in a high tech world. The EFF action is now one of nearly 40 lawsuits against telecommunications companies and the government. The ACLU pressed its own suit against the NSA, but a federal appeals court dismissed it last summer, saying the plaintiffs couldn't prove they'd been spied on.

BRANCACCIO: Typically in a lawsuit, you have to show harm. And in this case, you don't know what information the government got or how the government used it. So, it's hard to show harm.

KLEIN: I think that—that's a sneaky way for the government to avoid having to answer to the American population. It's a—sort of a Catch-22, you know. "Oh, well you can't take this to court 'cause you—you can't prove that—you were spied on because you'd have to have secret information, and we have it and we're not gonna give it to you, so there. Case dismissed."

KLEIN: All the information I presented is not classified. So, there's no secret government information being exposed. Right there at the splitter when they take all that data and send it into their little secret room, from a legal point of view, we don't care what they do afterward in the secret room. The point is, they've taken it. And if they're siphoning off billions of communications every second of every day for five years, you can be sure sooner or later we'll get just about everybody that uses the internet. And so—from the point of standing, I would argue—I'm not a lawyer, but I—I would argue that proves that just about everybody has been harmed.

BRANCACCIO: What do you make of the president of the United States' vigorous efforts to give retroactive immunity to your former employer, AT&T, and other companies that apparently cooperated when the government said, "Listen, want you to start installing this stuff and helping us listen in"?

KLEIN: And they—had to know they were illegal. 'Cause these phone companies, particularly AT&T, have an army of lawyers. They helped write the original FISA law. They know what's legal and what's not legal.

BRANCACCIO: Klein says AT&T has left him alone so far. AT&T won't discuss the case- saying only that the company does not comment on matters of national security.

BRANCACCIO: We are at war. There are terrorists who are trying to do this country and Americans harm. Which the administration maintains looking through this data would be a tool to stop that. Ultimately, Mr. Klein, why do you care if the government were to read through some of your e-mails? Is there anything special in your e-mails I wouldn't—that—that would—that disturbs you if the government looked into it?

KLEIN: I don't think that the government should have the right to just rake through everybody's personal communications. And the idea is that the accumulating databases on anything—everybody, we don't know what they're collecting. And that means that you have an unrestricted—without oversight government database on virtually the entire population which they can delve into and search whenever they want, whenever they want to target someone. Maybe they like you today, maybe they don't like you six months from now.

BRANCACCIO: You want to the media with mixed success. Did you ever—did you ever go to Congress?

KLEIN: I had zero success with that. Almost zero. As soon as this became a media thing, and I had—lawyers, yeah, we tried contacting senators and congressmen. No committee of Congress, either in the senate or the house, has ever invited me to testify...

BRANCACCIO: last month what the senate did do is go along with the president. They passed a bill that would grant immunity to telecom companies like AT&T that participated in the government program. The house of representatives has so far resisted immunity and, this afternoon voted to send the FISA bill back to the senate, without the protections for the phone companies the administration was insisting on. For Mark Klein, it's about time.

KLEIN: On paper, at least, it's the duty of Congress to protect the Constitution from an overbearing executive. And they've been remiss in that duty. And that's all you can say.

BRANCACCIO: We turn now to the issue of domestic violence, and the evils that can go on behind closed doors. It's a problem that's compounded when it occurs in remote, rural areas, like the part of Vermont where Wynona ward grew up. Only Ward decided to do something about it. Megan Thompson produced our report.

HINOJOSA: When Brandy Todd moved to Vermont ten years ago, she was newly married to the man of her dreams. But that dream soon became a nightmare.

TODD: You know, girls always have the idea of this beautiful veil and this wedding and this white picket fence and life's gonna be lovely. But nobody ever really grows up thinking I wanna be a single mom and I wanna struggle and I wanna be abused. You know, a lot of dreams were shattered.

HINOJOSA: Brandy says that her husband verbally and sexually abused her. After five years, she found the courage to call the police. But her struggle didn't end there.

TODD: I was left—with pretty much destitute with no food, no money. My car got repossessed. My lights got shut off. My water was shut off. I was petrified.

HINOJOSA: Brandy needed a divorce. But she had no job and no way to support her three young children. So how could she possibly pay for a lawyer? Fortunately, Brandy found Wynona Ward, the director of "Have Justice-Will Travel," a group she founded that helps women like brandy get back on their feet. Wynona provides free legal services and counseling to poor women across Vermont, and has dedicated her life to ending the generational cycle of abuse.

WARD: Something has to stop this. Something has to be done. It can't continue on.

HINOJOSA: A native Vermonter, Wynona grew up along these isolated back roads—roads that often hide stories of women abused, beaten and raped by men who are supposed to love them. Wynona says many abused Vermont women are trapped by fear, isolation and poverty, some without cars or even phones. They can't get out to reach a lawyer. So Wynona goes to them.

WARD: This is a typical back road where I would go to visit clients. This is what I call, the real Vermont. We go to people's homes—where we can sit—where they are comfortable, sit in their kitchens and talk with them as a peer and so that they can be comfortable with us.

HINOJOSA: When Wynona started ten years ago, she worked alone out of her kitchen. Today, with the help of grants and donations, she has a staff of ten and four offices across the state. Her newest office is here, in this poor, remote northeast corner of Vermont. The property was a gift from an anonymous donor. Now, Wynona wants to turn it into a safe house—if she can find the money. Wynona is already short-staffed—she estimates that for every one case she takes on, she has to turn fifty away.

WARD: And we don't—have enough attorneys because we don't have the money. And if—if I have any wish that I could is that we would have more money.

HINOJOSA: To make matters worse, last month, President Bush proposed huge cuts to the Violence Against Women Act—or VAWA—which funds two of Wynona's offices. If Congress doesn't act, those offices may have to close.

It's just one more challenge for Wynona, who has spent a lifetime overcoming obstacles.... And achieving the unexpected. After all, Wynona didn't first set out to become a laywer. She started out as a truck driver.

WARD: We had a sleeper that was big enough so that we had a refrigerator, microwave, a sink a hanging closet. A big bed.

HINOJOSA: At age 18, Wynona married her high school sweetheart Harold. And they headed out on the road in their big rig.

HAROLD WARD: She couldn't reach the throttle very well, so I even put an extension on the throttle pedal. That was made a little special for her.

HINOJOSA: Over sixteen years, Wynona and Harold traveled to every state in the lower forty-eight, putting over a million miles on their truck. But then one day on the road, Wynona received a dramatic phone call from home. She found out that her own brother had abused a child.

WARD: It was like, "Oh, here we go again." I can't believe this is happening again.

HINOJOSA: A terrible history was repeating itself. As children, Wynona and her brother had grown up abused at the hands of their father. But Wynona says that even worse was watching her father beat, strangle and nearly kill her mother.

WARD: Those things were so traumatic, because the one person who would protect me, or would be there for me, would be my mother. And that he was going to kill her. And if she died, I would die.

HINOJOSA: That phone call was a turning point in Wynona's life.

WARD: I felt that the generational cycle of abuse had to stop. That this could not be happening any longer in my family. That it had to stop.

HINOJOSA: Wynona worked with the prosecutor to put her brother in jail where he would get treatment. The ordeal tore her family apart, but Wynona knew it was the only way he'd get help. And in her gut, she understood that it didn't just end there. So Wynona—then in her forties—earned a college degree and returned home to Vermont to become a lawyer.

WARD: I wanted people to—women to be able to have the chance that I had had to—to get away from the abuse and to become independent and on their own.

HINOJOSA: Armed with her degrees and life experience, Wynona has made it her mission to help put abused women on the path to independence. Have Justice-Will Travel not only provides legal help, but they teach women life skills—everything from how to balance a check book to how to find a job.

WARD: If they can know that they've got a roof over their heads, that they've got heat, that they've got clothing, that they've got—can put food on the table, then they will stay independent.

WARD: Hi Robin!

LAFRANCIS: How are you today?

WARD: Good to see you, good to see you.

HINOJOSA: Robin LaFrancis needed that help. She says that after mental and verbal abuse, her husband walked out on her, threatening to take their two children with him. Like Brandy, Robin had no way to pay for a lawyer. She remembers the day she picked up the phone and called Have Justice-Will Travel.

LAFRANCIS: I just remember rambling. A lot of rambling. I was totally and emotionally drained. Not there.

WARD: Throughout the whole case, Robin's concern was for her children. And that they not have to see dad putting mom down. That they not have to see dad making mom feel worthless. And I would say to her often, "Come above it, Robin. Don't go down to his level. Come above it."

LAFRANCIS: Whatever he said would usually hit right to home. And it would take me right down every time. But she'd always help me come right back out of it.

HINOJOSA: With Wynona's support, Robin set goals & enrolled in a job training program. She got her divorce and custody of her kids. Today she works full-time and is even thinking about buying her own home.

LAFRANCIS: If it hadn't been for them, I don't know where I'd be right now. I really, honestly, have no clue. I certainly wouldn't be in the state of mind that I am now. The spirits. I wouldn't be there.

HINOJOSA: Wynona says that most all of her clients get out, and stay out, of abusive relationships.

WARD: There is help out there now where there didn't used to be—such as when I was growing up. There was no help for my mother. But now there is help there if women—can only reach out to get it.

TODD: Come on guys, dinner.

HINOJOSA: Brandy Todd did reach out to Wynona . And with her help and a lot of hard work, she got her divorce, and went on to earn her bachelor's degree. Today, she works for Have Justice-Will Travel as a paralegal and counselor to abused women—paying back the help she once received.

TODD: The first voice that they hear when they call a lot of times is mine. And—when I tell them I've walked in their shoes, I've been where they are, I get this (SIGH) sigh of relief. And I've been there and I've been through it and conquered, really.

BRANCACCIO: Last week, I asked you to share what you consider the biggest threats to Democracy, and the response was overwhelming. You cited everything from corporate influence to our electoral college and what one of you called a "dismantling" of the middle class. We'd like to continue the discussion. Keep your ideas comings... and see the growing list of concerns others are contributing. Find the link to the Feedback Forum on our homepage.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.