A survey of ISPs, cable companies and telecom backbones providers conducted by News.com suggests that NSA wiretapping may be occurring at the backbone level. While "no comment" is hardly proof of complicity, the trend lines are certainly suggestive that certain sectors are cooperating. News.com's Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache write:
The News.com survey, started Jan. 25, found that wireless providers and cable companies were the most likely to distance themselves from the NSA. Cingular Wireless, Comcast, Cox Communications, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile said they had not turned over information or opened their networks to the NSA without being required by law.
Companies that are backbone providers, or which operate undersea cables spanning the ocean, were among the least likely to respond. AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Global Crossing, Level 3, NTT Communications, SAVVIS Communications and Verizon Communications chose not to answer the questions posed to them.
The NY Times reported that the NSA has gained access to the switches that act as gateways between US and international networks, and intelligence observers say that backbone providers have long given NSA access.
"You go to Global Crossing [for example] and say...once your cable comes up for air in New Jersey or on the coast of Virginia, wherever it goes up, we want to put a little splice in, thank you very much, which NSA can do," said Matthew Aid, who recently completed the first volume in a multiple-volume history of the NSA. "The technology of getting access to that stuff is fairly straightforward."
The NSA has a long history of working with industry, McCullaugh and Broache write, noting Project Shamrock in which the NSA cooperated with Western Union to intercept telegrams between the US and overseas. The program was eventually turned inward by Richard Nixon and international calls made or placed to hundreds of Americans were intercepted and analyzed by NSA. The FISA law, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act that many suspect the current domestic spying program of violating, was a direct result of Project Shamrock's excesses.
In his book titled "State of War," New York Times reporter James Risen wrote: "The NSA has extremely close relationships with both the telecommunications and computer industries, according to several government officials. Only a very few top executives in each corporation are aware of such relationships."
Tapping into undersea copper and fiber-optic cables where they make landfall would be one way to create a virtual web of surveillance that can snare Internet packets or voice communications when they traverse U.S. borders. One benefit for the government is that one participant in the conversation is likely to be overseas--permitting Gonzales and the NSA to stress the interception's international nature.