AT&T Sells Phone Records to the CIA, Insisting it’s Lawful

November 12, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013, by Kelly Morris
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is to pay AT&T more than $10 million a year for call data. The deal was brokered in order to assist the CIA with foreign counterterrorism investigation, according to a report last week in the New York Times, and will give the CIA access to international phone records placed through AT&T’s system, which includes information on Americans.
AT&T has a huge archive of phone calls, both foreign and domestic, that go through its network. AT&T’s archive includes records beyond those of just its own customers. Per the agreement, the CIA is to provide AT&T with phone numbers of suspected overseas terrorists, and the company will search its database and supply any records of calls that may help identify foreign associates. Most of the calls will be foreign-to-foreign calls, but some may include information on domestic numbers.
The disclosures by AT&T are said to be voluntary, rather than under subpoenas or court orders compelling them to participate. AT&T stated that such payments from governments are routine for lawful data, but insisted that it “do[es] not comment on questions concerning national security.”
This report comes on the heels of the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s explosive data collection leaks regarding the National Security Agency (NSA)’s digital spying. According to the initial report in The Guardian, under a court order issued in April, Verizon is required to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, including the numbers of both parties on the call, the location data, and the time and duration of the calls. This data was supposedly collected in bulk and failed to discriminate between innocent and guilty parties.

“That need to act without delay is often best met when the CIA has developed its own capabilities to lawfully acquire necessary foreign intelligence information. . . .”

The CIA’s deal with AT&T will likely duplicate some of the NSA’s data-collection programs, and while neither the CIA nor AT&T would confirm the program, an anonymous intelligence official provided a possible explanation that mirrors the reasoning behind NSA’s data collection efforts. The official told the Times, “That need to act without delay is often best met when the CIA has developed its own capabilities to lawfully acquire necessary foreign intelligence information,” suggesting that the agency’s functionality would be impaired by a requirement that it wait for a third party or legal order in order to obtain this information.
Because the CIA is not allowed to conduct domestic surveillance to spy on Americans, per Executive Order 12333, the numbers of American callers who place calls overseas will be masked. Lawyers reviewing the program concluded that the partial censoring satisfied the restrictions on CIA domestic surveillance activities, citing a statutory exception to privacy laws covering “the acquisition by the United States government of foreign intelligence information from international or foreign communications.” However, the CIA may coordinate with the FBI to use an administrative subpoena to have AT&T remove the initial censoring.
The CIA’s spokesman insists that the agency’s intelligence collection activities are “subject to extensive oversight” from multiple areas of government. Considering that AT&T has a history of aiding the government in surveillance, using methods just shy of lawful, its statements of legitimacy (while declining to confirm the deal with the CIA) fail to inspire confidence in telephone-using Americans.