(Fixes typo in 19th paragraph)
By James Bamford
June 10 "God we trust," goes an old National
Security Agency joke. "All others we monitor.
First, the Guardian reported details on a domestic telephone
dragnet in which Verizon was forced to give the NSA details
about all domestic, and even local, telephone calls. Then the
Guardian and the Washington Post revealed another massive NSA
surveillance program, called Prism, that required the country's
major Internet companies to secretly pass along data including
email, photos, videos, chat services, file transfers, stored
data, log-ins and video conferencing.
While the Obama administration and Senate intelligence
committee members defend the spying as crucial in its fight
against terrorism, this is only the latest chapter in nearly a
century of pressure on telecommunications companies to secretly
cooperate with NSA and its predecessors. But as stunning
technology advances allow more and more personal information to
pass across those links, the dangers of the United States
turning into a secret surveillance state increase exponentially.
The NSA was so flooded with billions of dollars from
post-Sept. 11, 2001 budget increases that it went on a building
spree and also expanded its eavesdropping capabilities
enormously. Secret rooms were built in giant telecom
facilities, such as AT&T's 10-story "switch" in San Francisco.
There, mirror copies of incoming data and telephone cables are
routed into rooms filled with special hardware and software to
filter out email and phone calls for transmission to NSA for
New spy satellites were launched and new listening posts
were built - such as the recently opened operations center near
Augusta, Ga. Designed to hold more than 4,000 earphone-clad
eavesdroppers, it is the largest electronic spy base in the
Meanwhile, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee,
where top-secret work was done on the atomic bomb during World
War II, the NSA is secretly building the world's fastest and
most powerful computer. Designed to run at exaflop speed,
executing a million trillion operations per second, it will be
able to sift through enormous quantities of data - for example,
all the phone numbers dialed in the United States every day.
Today the NSA is the world's largest spy organization,
encompassing tens of thousands of employees and occupying a
city-size headquarters complex on Fort Meade in Maryland. But
in 1920, its earliest predecessor, known as the Black Chamber,
fit into a slim townhouse on Manhattan's East 37th Street.
World War One had recently ended, along with official
censorship, and the Radio Communication Act of 1912 was again in
effect. This legislation guaranteed the secrecy of electronic
communications and meted out harsh penalties for any telegraph
company employee who divulged the contents of a message. To the
Black Chamber, however, the bill represented a large obstacle to
be overcome-illegally, if necessary.
So the Black Chamber chief, Herbert O. Yardley, and his boss
in Washington, General Marlborough Churchill, head of the
Military Intelligence Division, paid a visit to 195 Broadway in
downtown Manhattan, headquarters of Western Union. This was the
nation's largest telegram company - the email of that day.
The two government officials took the elevator to the 24th
floor for a secret meeting with Western Union's president,
Newcomb Carlton. Their object was to convince him to grant them
secret access to the private communications zapping through his
It was easier achieved than Yardley had ever imagined.
"After the men had put all our cards on the table," Yardley
later described, "President Carlton seemed anxious to do
everything he could for us.'"
Time and again over the decades, this pattern has been
repeated. The NSA, or a predecessor, secretly entered into
agreements with the country's major telecommunications companies
and illegally gained access to Americans' private
In a much-cited story, the influential Republican statesman,
Henry L. Stimson, was described as deeply offended by the very
notion of snooping into people's private communications. As the
new secretary of state in 1929, Stimson shut down the Black
Chamber with the now immortal phrase, "Gentlemen do not read
each other's mail."
But when President Franklin D. Roosevelt later appointed
Stimson secretary of war during World War Two, Stimson changed
his mind. He wanted to eavesdrop on every possible
communication, especially on the Germans and Japanese.
Once the guns of World War Two began falling silent,
however, the communications privacy laws again took effect.
Thus, Brigadier General W. Preston Corderman, the chief of the
Signals Intelligence Service - another pre-NSA iteration -
faced the same dilemma Yardley confronted after World War One: a
lack of access to the cables flowing into, out of and through
So, once again, deals were made with the major telegraph
companies - the Internet providers of the day - to grant the SIS
(and later the NSA) secret access to their communications.
Codenamed "Operation Shamrock," agents would arrive at the
back door at each telecom headquarters in New York around
midnight; pick up all that days telegraph traffic, and bring it
to an office masquerading as a television tape processing
company. There they would use a machine to duplicate all the
computer tapes containing the telegrams, and, hours later,
return the original tapes to the company.
The secret agreement lasted for 30 years. It only ended in
1975, when the nation was shocked by a series of stunning
intelligence revelations uncovered by a congressional
investigation led by Senator Frank Church.
The illegality and vast breadth of this one operation
stunned both the left and the right, Republicans as well as
Democrats. The parties came together to create a new law to make
sure nothing like it could ever happen again. Known as the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the legislation created a
secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to
ensure that the NSA only eavesdropped on Americans when there
was probable cause to suspect they were involved in serious
national security crimes - such as espionage or terrorism.
For more than a quarter-century, the NSA obeyed this law.
The intelligence agency turned its giant ears outward - away
from the everyday lives of Americans. But that all changed soon
after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush administration began its
warrantless wiretapping program.
Once again, an NSA director sought the secret cooperation of
the nation's telecom industry to gain access to its
communications channels and links. Again, the companies agreed -
despite violating the laws and the privacy of their tens of
millions of customers. Eventually, when the operation was
discovered, a number of groups brought suit against the
companies, Congress passed legislation granting them immunity.
Thus, for roughly 100 years, whenever the government knocked
on the telecommunications industry's door and asked them to
break the law and turn over millions upon millions of private
communications, the telecoms complied. Why not, since they knew
that nothing would ever happen to them if they broke the law.
Now, as a result of these new revelations, it appears that
the NSA has again gone to Verizon and other telephone companies,
as well as many of the giant Internet companies, and obtained
secret access to millions, if not billions, of private
communications. There are still many questions as to what, if
any, legal justification was used.
But unlike with Yardley and the Black Chamber, the dangers
today of secret cooperation between the telecom and Internet
industry and the NSA are incomparable. Because of technology
back then, the only data the government was able to obtain were
telegrams - which few average people sent or received.
Today, however, access to someone's telephone records and
Internet activity can provide an incredibly intimate window on
Phone data reveals whom they call, where they call, how
often they call someone, where they are calling from and how
long they speak to each person. Internet data provides e-mail
content, Google searches, pictures, and personal and financial
We now live in an era when access to someone's email account
and web searches can paint a more detailed picture of their life
then most personal diaries. Secret agreements between
intelligence agencies and communications companies should not be
allowed in a democracy. There is too much at risk.
In a dusty corner of Utah, NSA is now completing
construction of a mammoth new building, a one-million-square
foot data warehouse for storing the billions of communications
it is intercepting. If the century-old custom of secret
back-room deals between NSA and the telecoms is permitted to
continue, all of us may digitally end up there.
Contrary to what Simpson may have asserted, gentlemen (and
women) do read each other's mail - at least if they work for the
National Security Agency.
And in the future, given NSA's unrestrained push into
advanced technologies, the agency may also be able to read your
thoughts as well as your mail.
(James Bamford writes frequently on intelligence and
produces documentaries for PBS. His latest book is "The Shadow
Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on