Journalism in the Public Interest

How a Telecom Helped the Government Spy on Me

When federal agents investigated a story I wrote, they violated Department of Justice rules and my privacy in many of the ways Edward Snowden has suggested could happen.


(Image: Flickr)

Over the past several months, the Obama Administration has defended the government’s far-reaching data collection efforts, arguing that only criminals and terrorists need worry. The nation’s leading internet and telecommunications companies have said they are committed to the sanctity of their customers’ privacy.

I have some very personal reasons to doubt those assurances.

In 2004, my telephone records as well as those of another New York Times reporter and two reporters from the Washington Post, were obtained by federal agents assigned to investigate a leak of classified information. What happened next says a lot about what happens when the government’s privacy protections collide with the day-to-day realities of global surveillance.

The story begins in 2003 when I wrote an article about the killing of two American teachers in West Papua, a remote region of Indonesia where Freeport-McMoRan operates one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. The Indonesian government and Freeport blamed the killings on a separatist group, the Free Papua Movement, which had been fighting a low-level guerrilla war for several decades.

I opened my article with this sentence: “Bush Administration officials have determined that Indonesian soldiers carried out a deadly ambush that killed two American teachers.”

 I also reported that two FBI agents had travelled to Indonesia to assist in the inquiry and quoted a “senior administration official” as saying there “was no question there was a military involvement.’’

The story prompted a leak investigation. The FBI sought to obtain my  phone records and those of  Jane Perlez, the Times bureau chief in Indonesia and my wife. They also went after the records of the Washington Post reporters in Indonesia who had published the first reports about the Indonesian government’s involvement in the killings.

As part of its investigation, the FBI asked for help from what is described in a subsequent government report as an “on-site communications service” provider. The report, by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, offers only the vaguest description of this key player, calling it “Company A.’’

“We do not identify the specific companies because the identities of the specific providers who were under contract with the FBI for specific services are classified,’’ the report explained.

Whoever they were, Company A had some impressive powers. Through some means – the report is silent on how – Company A obtained  records of calls made on Indonesian cell phones and landlines by the Times and Post reporters. The records showed whom we called, when and for how long -- what has now become famous as “metadata.”

Under DOJ rules, the FBI investigators were required to ask the Attorney General to approve a grand jury subpoena before requesting records of reporters’ calls. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the bureau sent Company A what is known as an “exigent letter’’ asking for the metadata.

A heavily redacted version of the DOJ report, released in 2010, noted that exigent letters are supposed to be used in extreme circumstances where there is no time to ask a judge to issue a subpoena. The report found nothing “exigent’’ in an investigation of several three-year-old newspaper stories.

The need for an exigent letter suggests two things about Company A. First, that it was an American firm subject to American laws. Second, that it had come to possess my records through lawful means and needed legal justification to turn them over to the government.

The report disclosed that the agents’ use of the exigent letter was choreographed by the company and the bureau. It said the FBI agent drafting the letter received “guidance” from “a Company A analyst.’’  According to the report, lawyers for Company A and the bureau worked together to develop the approach.

Not surprisingly, “Company A” quickly responded to the letter it helped write. In fact, it was particularly generous, supplying the FBI with records covering a 22-month period, even though the bureau’s investigationwas limited to a seven-month period.Altogether, “Company A” gave the FBI metadata on 1,627 calls by me and the other  reporters.

Only three calls were within the seven-month window of phone conversations investigators had decided to review.

It doesn’t end there.

The DOJ report asserts that “the FBI made no investigative use of the reporters’ telephone records.” But I don’t believe that is accurate.

In 2007, I heard rumblings  that the leak investigation was focusing on a diplomat named Steve Mull, who was the deputy chief of mission in Indonesia at the time of the killings. I had known Mull when he was a political officer in Poland and I was posted there in the early 1990s. He is a person of great integrity and a dedicated public servant.

The DOJ asked to interview me. Of course, I would not agree to help law enforcement officials identify my anonymous sources. But I was troubled because I felt an honorable public servant had been forced to spend money on lawyers to fend off a charge that was untrue. After considerable internal debate, I decided to talk to the DOJ for the limited purpose of clearing Mull.

It was not a decision I could make unilaterally. The Times also had a stake in this. If I allowed myself to be interviewed, how could the Times say no the next time the government wanted to question a Times reporter about a leak?

The Times lawyer handling this was George Freeman, a journalist’s lawyer, a man Times reporters liked having in their corner. George and the DOJ lawyers began to negotiate over my interview. Eventually, we agreed that I would speak on two conditions: one, that they could not ask me for the name of my source; and two, if they asked me if it was ‘X,’ and I said no, they could not then start going through other names.

Freeman and I sat across a table from two DOJ lawyers. I’m a lawyer, and prided myself on being able to answer their questions with ease, never having to turn to Freeman for advice.

Until that is, one of the lawyers took a sheaf of papers that were just off to his right, and began asking me about phone calls I made to Mull. One call was for 19 minutes, the DOJ lawyer said, giving me the date and time. I asked for a break to consult with Freeman.

We came back, and answered questions about the phone calls. I said that I couldn’t remember what these calls were about – it had been more than four years earlier – but that Mull had not given me any information about the killings. Per our agreement, the DOJ lawyers did not ask further questions about my sources, and the interview ended.

I didn’t know how the DOJ had gotten my phone records, but assumed the Indonesian government had provided them. Then, about a year later, I received a letter from the FBI’s general counsel, Valerie Caproni who wrote that my phone records had been taken from “certain databases” under the authority of an “exigent letter,’’ (a term I had never heard).

Caproni sent similar letters to Perlez, to the Washington Post reporters, and to the executive editors of the Post and the Times, Leonard Downie and Bill Keller, respectively. In addition, FBI Director Robert Mueller called Downie and Keller, according to the report.

Caproni wrote that the records had not been seen by anyone other than the agent requesting them and that they had been expunged from all databases.

I’m uneasy because the DOJ report makes clear that the FBI is still concealing some aspect of this incident. After describing Caproni’s letters, the report says: “However, the FBI did not disclose to the reporters or their editors that [BLACKED OUT).”  The thick black lines obliterate what appear to be several sentences.

If you were to ask senior intelligence officials whether I should wonder about those deletions, they’d probably say no.

I’m not so sure.

The government learned extensive details about my personal and professional life. Most of those calls were about other stories I was writing. Some were undoubtedly to arrange my golf game with the Australian ambassador. Is he now under suspicion? The report says the data has been destroyed and that only two analysts ever looked at it.

But who is this 'Company A" that willing cooperated with the government?  Why was it working hand in glove with the FBI? And what did the FBI director not tell the editors of the Times and the Washington Post when he called them acknowledging the government had improperly obtained reporter's records?

Raymond Bonner, a lawyer and former New York Times reporter, is the author of "Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong."

Easy to figure out Company A—who is your provider—that is the agent of the NSA/CIA.  This is not exclusively an Obama problem.  This case goes back to Bush and I bet Clinton and the first Bush allowed agencies to spy on us and violate the laws.

That is an amazingly scary story, Ray

It makes real journalism take place in a threatening environment. No wonder so much media give up and just print the lies from the press releases

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 3, 2013, 8:15 p.m.

So Raymond Bonner, you do not expect to be exempt from the same spy machine that watches over the rest of us, do you?

As soon as the lawmakers decide what a journalist is, the license for it or whatever, then the rest of us lost our 1st Ammendment rights. We have had our rights, given by God, taken by our government.

Wake up and smell the coffee, my fellow Americans!

The real story behind the story is that the CALEA Act (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) passed in 1994 (Clinton) which required all telecommunications companies to provide electronic backdoors to all telecommunications switches.  Add all digital technology to CALEA and add the Patriot Act and you have almost unlimited authority and capability to access anyone’s records at any time.  Prior to CALEA telecommunications companies had the ability to request court orders and grant limited physical access.

Excerpt from Electronic Frontier Forum…
Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in 1994 to make it easier for law enforcement to wiretap digital telephone networks. CALEA forced telephone companies to redesign their network architectures to make wiretapping easier.

More from Wikipedia…

Edward Redondo

Oct. 4, 2013, 11:18 a.m.

I know exactly what phone metadata is. I worked for 9yrs for a company that made equipment that phone companies use to collect phone metadata.

The metadata link in this article has a statement, “And unlike our words, metadata doesn’t lie.” which is a good thing.

This data is never reveals the customer’s personal data. A customer’s personal data is on a totally separate computer system, the phone companies billing system.

When you make a phone call, including cell, it goes through a phone switching station. This is where phone metadata is recorded. The metadata is for all phones in an area which means (since the breakup of AT&T) many different phone companies.

Individual phone companies poll the metadata to collect the data for phone calls made by their clients so they can be billed for a call. It is on the phone company’s billing system where any phone number is linked to a specific customer.

Phone metadata contains no personal information, it’s essentially phone numbers and time/date stamps to calculate call duration.

The focus on collecting phone metadata is nothing but scare mongering.

The real danger is what is done WITH the metadata, especially if a warrant is not obtained to pull personal information from phone company billing systems.

I spent 30 years working for slave t and t, had to quit when I could not stand the discrimination anymore.  Clinton introduced the Telecommunications Act in the 1990’s.  Shortly after that the NSA had their own offices inside the telecom offices so they could access anyone’s conversation or telephone use.  The company completely changed when it was “sold” to SBC and then the subsequent name change to “ATT”.  Now all employees are suspect and are monitored to maintain conformity.  ATT is a mind controlled slave state.  You either “get with the program” or you get ostracized and you never get promoted.  Needless to say I was not promoted, I was ostracized for speaking out about slave t and t’s compliance with the masonic “new world order”.  Most people don’t realize this nwo crap is all about a masonic wet dream.  The masons are all joined together into a hive mind mentality, along with our wonderful gummint.  It is the masons who designed the one dollar bill and included hints about their masonic wet dream, like the uncapped pyramid with the all seeing eye of Osiris on top.  It is uncapped because their work is not finished until they get their anti-Christ in power to rule the world.  It aint gonna work, evil never works, it always destroys itself, just like the NSA will do.  Power corrupts and it is corrupting everything it touches…and now we see sycobama melting because of this gummint impasse.  This is the spiritual battle that the Bible warned us about.  Or as Bush Jr said on the mound at the site of 9-11 “ are either with us or you are with the terrorists”.  Bush was talking about you are either with the masons or you are with the Christians.  The Christians are now the new terrorists, according to Bush, because the Christians won’t go along with this nwo enslavement.  But God knows that the real terrorists are the ones in gummint who are corrupting everything that God has created.  May God come quickly and overturn the tables of the money changers once again.  For the love of money is the root of all evil.  If you really want to make an impact on slave t and t, stop using your cell phone, stop using their equipment and services.  Slave t and t is a masonic company and all of the CEO’s at the top are all masons.  Just ask Ed Whitaker, the retired CEO of SBC who “gave” SBC to ATT.  He removed most of our benefits and then gave himself a 45 million dollar retirement.  What a pig. The nwo is a two tiered society, the rich and the poor, and most of us will be poor, enslaved, or dead.  We will eat maggots and they will eat steak, it is their dream.

@Edward - of course the collection of metadata by a telco is not the issue here.  But keeping phone records for longer than necessary, goes beyond valid use for for billing and general network analysis.

Regarding customer’s personal data (according to the OMB), a telephone number is regarded as personally identifiable information (PII).  Also does cell phone metadata include cell tower info?  Think about that.

Access to this data needs to be very tighly controlled and frankly the FISA court oversight isn’t up to the job, as typified by the misuse of the exigent letter in this article.  It seems the system can be short-circuited at will and that is very unsettling to me and breaks the trust relationship between government and it’s citizens.

People should not be quick to dismiss phone metadata as meaningless data, in fact a *lot* of information can be harvested from it when reverse lookups are used.  The potential for this information to be used against you by unscrupulous actors is not fantasy (i.e., see recent LOVEINT news articles).

Michael Correll

Oct. 4, 2013, 12:47 p.m.

The revelation about CEO removing worker’s benefits and giving himself a big hand-shake rings so true. No wonder I don’t have any money in stock-market.

I was looking back to see if they was looking back to see if I was looking back at them looking at me.
Nice one Ray. We miss you in the tea shop in London.

Janet Innes-Kirkwood

Oct. 4, 2013, 6:27 p.m.

This also raises the question of the sharing accross governments such as we are seeing that they are doing especially in a time when good governnence is in decline and what can be collected in one place can be used against another somewhere else for some other reason years later. Metadata can be used to make connections that may or may not be there. For instance I may call somebody, or have a friend on social media,  who also has contact with somebody else, hopping on out in all directions. If we don’t have content agents could make conections to one thing but that may or may not be the thing that conects them at all. That is why they want to have searchable lockboxes.

What they want is all the content so they can go backwards into the haystack. Now what they selling us is the idea that they can go forward and intercept. Now that gets even crazier because then they would need to be mining data and making predictions and manipoulating things.

There is a lot of complaints and examples,  against the governments, about that aspect where they are using people fed into networks to get the data points in order to put together cases that are based on metadata history and present content….  Now you can see how they get into networks to start manipulating data points.

If you look at all these different type of conspiracy cases that they put together in alphabet soup land and throw in corporation A,B,and C, you can see threads sometimes that seem as if they are a pattern of behavior by the investigators. It should raise questions about not only constituional rights and human rights violation but also due process.

I think everybody hit on most of the points I would have raised, but do want to point out that Snowden was only our first whistle-blower with good documentation backing his claims.  Qwest’s Nacchio told us most of these stories about ten years ago.  Binney and Wiebe gave us a lot of insight (in outline, at least) of the warrantless wiretapping.  Even Bush tipped his hand by agitating to give the telecoms retroactive immunity for any wiretapping they might have done at the government’s request.

When you put Snowden’s releases—the abuses, the extent of these programs, and the shell games of dozens of programs used to obscure overall capabilities—into this context, then look at the “parallel construction” doctrine and the various infiltrations and busts of groups of protestors, it’s pretty clear that this is an old, deeply-entrenched program and that “terrorists” are not, in fact, the primary targets.

Considering the source who leaked the classified information was committing a crime, which they had surely signed a document to say they would never do, it is hardly surprising that the Government would go after them via the journalists they might have spoken to.

Name any Government that would never do that.

But the Snowden revelations expose something of an entirely different scale. Now they have the ability to collect EVERYTHING on EVERYBODY in the whole world. They assassinate people all over the world based on this intelligence. They infiltrate foreign countries and kidnap people and whisk them out of the country for “advanced interrogation” at secret prisons and claim it is all “legal”. They start wars based on “sexed up” intelligence. They have weapons of mass destruction that could kill everyone on the planet.

By comparison, this article is pretty tame.

Mr. Shahislam

Oct. 8, 2013, 5:51 p.m.

Similar things are very commonplace in “too much of outdated law infested royal-Canadian-system” of which no one can even talk about in this part of real Great North-America. 
wwwDOTshahislamDOTcom is explaining how it works.


Oct. 14, 2013, 2:21 p.m.

Back in 1963, the classic television program “The Outer Limits” had an episode titled O.B.I.T. In the Episode, a Top Secret security device is used to monitor employees of a secret U.S. Government research center. The device, The Outer Band Individuated Teletracer (known by the acronym O.B.I.T.) is so invasive that no one can escape its prying eye, at any time or in any place. After an O.B.I.T. operator’s death, and an investigation by an aggressive U.S. Senator (Peter Breck), O.B.I.T. is revealed as an alien invention that was designed to demoralize and desensitize the human race in preparation for invasion. Life imitating art?

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories