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Inside AT&T and the NSA’s ‘highly collaborative’ partnership

An article published jointly by The New York Times and Pro-Publica reports that AT&T demonstrated an "extreme willingness to help" the NSA, according to documents from Edward Snowden. Among other revelations, the article reports that AT&T forwarded a million emails and handed over a billion cell phone records to the NSA. Pro-Publica reporter Jeff Larson joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For two years, secret documents leaked by former national security contractor Edward Snowden have yielded a steady stream of news reports about U.S. government spying on terrorism suspects, foreign leaders, and American citizens.

    Now another chapter has been revealed: how telecommunications giant AT&T demonstrated a — quote — “extreme willingness” to help the NSA.

    An article jointly published by The New York Times and the investigative nonprofit ProPublica reports AT&T forwarded a million e-mails a day to the NSA, handed over a billion cell phone records a day to the NSA, and assisted the NSA in wiretapping Internet lines at the United Nations headquarters.

    This is according to documents provided by Snowden, who remains in Russia to avoid U.S. prosecution for espionage.

    Joining me now to discuss this is reporter Jeff Larson from ProPublica.

    You and a few of your colleagues at ProPublica and The Times published this. So, how did you prove that this partnership exists?

  • Jeff Larson, Propublica:

    Well, it was a long slog trying to prove that Fairview was AT&T, right?

    We went through the documents with a fine-tooth comb looking for things like internal acronyms that AT&T used. We also combed FCC reports trying to find the cable landings that corresponded to the Fairview programming.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When Fairview was sort of a code name, that you hadn’t figured out that that was AT&T.

  • Jeff Larson:

    Exactly. And it’s been out before. There’s been sort of mentions on Brazilian TV about Fairview. But no one had put two and two together and actually put it together. So, starting in February, we — we looked through all the documents, trying to prove this partnership.

    And what we were struck by is that it’s an extremely close partnership. AT&T engineers work hand in hand with the NSA to enable spying and in some cases, in many cases, the — AT&T actually does the filtering on behalf of the NSA in their own facility.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So they’re not actually just handing all the information; they’re sorting it out before it goes to the NSA?

  • Jeff Larson:

    Right. But it’s a large portion of it.

    So, when you talk about the cell phone records that you have mentioned, for example, those cell phone records are pretty bulky. And they — they include domestic ones. This is sort of — in 2013, it came out that Verizon was handing out them. But the U.S. government had always sort of said that it was only landline and not cell phone records.

    So, what is exactly — what is new here is these cell phone records that AT&T is handing over.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And the idea that a million e-mails a day to the NSA, I mean, how do you sort through that and where do they get access to that? Is that people just using AT&T.com e-mail? No.

  • Jeff Larson:

    So, it’s actually not AT&T.com e-mail. It is the Internet backbone itself.

    So, AT&T provides the big pipes of the Internet, for much of the Internet. And they also provide those big pipes to corporate partners that AT&T has, so, you know, places like at Level 3 or at Comcast, if you have home Internet, it largely will go over AT&T networks at some point when it transits the United States.

    Largely, with the NSA’s — because it’s a foreign intelligence agency, they are interested to foreign-to-foreign e-mails, so a large portion of that will be people outside of the United States. And that’s not necessarily covered by United States law. That’s fair game as far as the NSA is concerned.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And when you look through these PowerPoints, you actually see instructions from the NSA to behave nicely when they go into AT&T offices.

  • Jeff Larson:

    Right. They say this is a collaborative relationship, right? There’s no — that it’s — that there’s this extreme willingness to help on AT&T’s behalf, right? Shortly after 9/11, there were two telecoms that went to the NSA and said, how can we help, right?

    One of them, we know now, is AT&T. So, this is — you know, AT&T sees this as sort of a patriotic duty, I think.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what does AT&T say about this when you ask them?

  • Jeff Larson:

    AT&T gave us a sort of surprising response, which is, we don’t comment on national security matters, right?

    And then, later — and then, when we circled back to them, they said, we comply with the law essentially, right? So, we don’t willingly do this. We only comply with the law, which is sort of at odds with what’s in the documents.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And does that mean that, essentially, at this point, they are being compelled?

  • Jeff Larson:

    We don’t know.

    Because the documents are so old, we don’t — I mean, are 2 years old, we don’t know how things have changed after Congress passed the USA Freedom Act. We also don’t know necessarily what happened in the two intervening years. We knew — know that Verizon did try and challenge some things in court. But we really have no idea if the program is exactly the same as it was in 2013, before the Snowden revelations.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right. Jeff Larson from ProPublica, thanks very much.

  • Jeff Larson:

    Thank you very much.

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