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Revealed: AT&T Offers CIA Subpoena-Free Access... for a Price

Ongoing program allows intelligence agency to review global database for $10 million a year

Jon Queally, staff writer

In essence, by working in tandum—and leveraging the available metadata provided by the telecom company for a price—the CIA and FBI can create a complete view of international phone records, including phone calls made or received by U.S. citizens. (Image: CD)

If you want access to the overseas communication data held by one of the nation's largest telecommunication firms, you can get it... for a price.

As the New York Times reports Thursday, the CIA has been paying AT&T approximately $10 million a year for continued access to its overseas "metadata"—extensive records that show "the date, duration and phone numbers involved in a call." Those records may or may not show that one end of the call is located in the United States.

The revelation shows the tacit (and voluntary) agreement and financial arrangements that the intelligence agency has made with private companies in an effort to monitor global communications. Most striking is that CIA program is conducted without the authority of subpoenas or court oversight and a legal loophole, creating by working with domestic law enforcement agencies, allows the CIA to do an end-run around the laws designed to keep it from spying on U.S. citizens.

Separate from surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency or those otherwise divulged by documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ongoing agreement, according to unnamed officials who spoke to the Times, is "conducted under a voluntary contract, not under subpoenas or court orders compelling the company to participate."

In essence, by working in tandem—and leveraging the available metadata provided by the telecom company for a price—the CIA and FBI can create a complete view of international phone records, including phone calls made or received by U.S. citizens.

As the Times reports:


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Because the C.I.A. is prohibited from spying on the domestic activities of Americans, the agency imposes privacy safeguards on the program, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because it is classified. Most of the call logs provided by AT&T involve foreign-to-foreign calls, but when the company produces records of international calls with one end in the United States, it does not disclose the identity of the Americans and “masks” several digits of their phone numbers, the officials said.

Still, the agency can refer such masked numbers to the F.B.I., which can issue an administrative subpoena requiring AT&T to provide the uncensored data. The bureau handles any domestic investigation, but sometimes shares with the C.I.A. the information about the American participant in those calls, the officials said.

As the reporting also reminds readers, AT&T has a lengthy and troubling history of working closely with government intelligence agencies to spy on its customers when asked:

It helped facilitate the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program by allowing the N.S.A. to install secret equipment in its phone and Internet switching facilities, according to an account by a former AT&T technician made public in a lawsuit.

It was also one of three phone companies that embedded employees from 2003 to around 2007 in an F.B.I. facility, where they used company databases to provide quick analysis of call records. The embedding was shut down amid criticism by the Justice Department’s inspector general that officers were obtaining Americans’ call data without issuing subpoenas.


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