It's not just phone calls, it's e-mail, too, according to a lawsuit that accuses AT&T of turning over vast amounts of domestic phone and Internet traffic to the National Security Agency.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public-interest ``digital rights'' group with headquarters in San Francisco, said Thursday's report in USA Today on an alleged massive telephone-monitoring program appears to confirm allegations made in its lawsuit against AT&T. That class-action lawsuit, filed Jan. 31 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleges that the phone company lets the NSA scoop up voluminous phone and e-mail traffic at AT&T telecommunications centers.
AT&T said in a statement that it has ``a long history of vigorously protecting customer privacy,'' but also has ``an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation.''
``We prize the trust our customers place in us,'' the statement said. ``If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions. Beyond that, we don't comment on matters of national security.''
Thursday's disclosure that the NSA had collected call logs from AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth caused a furor in Washington. Foundation representative Rebecca Jeske said the newspaper report ``confirms a lot of what we alleged in our lawsuit.''
The January lawsuit accuses AT&T of participation in ``a secret and illegal government program to intercept and analyze vast quantities of Americans' telephone and Internet communications, surveillance done without the authorization of a court and in violation of federal electronic surveillance and telecommunications statutes, as well as the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution.''
The lawsuit was prompted by press accounts of the NSA operation and the foundation's own investigation, according to staff lawyer Kurt Opsahl. The lawsuit says the purpose of the data gathering is ``to identify persons whose communications patterns the government believes may link them, even if indirectly, to investigatory targets.''
The foundation's complaint alleges that AT&T provides the government with ``direct access to its databases of stored telephone and Internet records, which are updated with new information in real time or near-real time.''
According to the suit, ``large volumes of domestic and international telephone and Internet traffic'' are routed to NSA technicians. They operate in a secret room in the AT&T telecommunications center in San Francisco, according to a lawyer who represents a retired AT&T technician who has filed a sealed declaration in the lawsuit.
The government conducts ``data mining'' on the intercepted calls and e-mails, the lawsuit said.
A hearing in the suit is scheduled Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco. Among the motions before the court will be a request for the unsealing of the declaration filed by former AT&T technician Mark Klein. The foundation is also requesting the unsealing of expert witness testimony from J. Scott Marcus, a former senior adviser to the Federal Communication Commission on Internet technology.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement last month saying it will assert a ``military and state secrets privilege'' and seek dismissal of the case.
Klein's attorney said Thursday that Klein's knowledge of the operation comes from his work on the public side of the company's San Francisco telecommunications center.
``They make a copy, through the use of a machine called a `splitter,' of all the fiber-optic communications being carried at any given time,'' said Klein's attorney, James J. Brosnahan. ``And that goes to a secret room. It's taking place at AT&T's Folsom Street facility in San Francisco. We also are aware that the same activity has gone on in San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle.''
The operation began in late 2002 and was going on when Klein retired in May 2004, said Brosnahan.
The splitter is in a room accessible to technicians employed by AT&T. As for what happens once the data passes into the secret room, ``We can all guess about what they're doing in there, but that's just a guess,'' Brosnahan said.
It's likely that all the information collected by the NSA will be kept for years to come, said Alan Morrison, an expert on government records at Stanford University Law School. The Federal Records Act requires it, he said.
``There's no way the NSA can destroy the private, irrelevant material it scoops up without violating the Federal Records Act,'' he said.
© 2006 MercuryNews.com and wire service sources.