A Qwest for Ethics

Earlier this week, the newspaper USA Today revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been logging the majority of U.S. domestic telephone calls since late 2001. It has been doing so under the authority of President Bush but without benefit of judicial warrant. By most accounts, the designer of the plan was Air Force General Michael Hayden, currently nominated to take over leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The administration says the NSA does not record or listen to calls, but the information gathered includes the originating telephone number, the destination number, and duration of calls. No names are included in the data collected by the NSA, although associating phone numbers with directory and account listings is easily accomplished via public databases and is something the NSA can probably do in near real-time with a significant number of the calls it logs. The database is reportedly now one of the largest on earth, recording details of billions upon billions of U.S. domestic telephone calls. According to information provided to Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO), the NSA analyzes the call data to track and detect suspected terrorist activity.

The administration—with its broad view of Presidential authority—claims the measure is terrorist surveillance, not domestic surveillance, and is permissible under the Constitution. The New York Times is now reporting that Vice President Cheney and his staff were pushing for the interception of all domestic calls and email messages; the NSA was apparently able to talk them down from that position. The NSA's mission is foreign intelligence, and spying on a caller in the United States without a warrant was made illegal in 1978 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed in part to reign in ongoing warrantless domestic eavesdropping conducted by the NSA. Cheney was President Ford's chief of staff at the time.

One interesting detail. Three of the major "baby bells" which went along with the warrant-free NSA surveillance program are Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T (formerly SBC). However, Qwest, the smallest of the baby bells with regional monopolies in several western states, declined. According to a statement by an attorney for former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, Nacchio refused to accommodate the NSA when he learned the NSA was bypassing the Special Court set up to handle wiretapping and surveillance cases, the NSA had been granted no legislative authority to conduct the surveillance, and that authorities demonstrated a "disinclination" to use any legal process.

According to CBS News, current Qwest CEO Richard Notebaert broke off further talks with the NSA in 2004 after repeated failures to agree on parameters of the program. The NSA reportedly threatened that failure to participate could endanger Qwest's eligibility for classified government contracts.

Here's my thing. Qwest is my local phone company, and have been my only option for landline service the entire time I've lived in the Seattle area (although, initially, they were known as US West). Although I'll happily concede that service I've received from Qwest in the last, say, three years, is an improvement over service received in years previous—and I've interacted with a number of perfectly competent Qwest technicians—Qwest's services and offerings are neither consistent nor trouble-free, the company continually shoots itself in the foot, and Qwest is more-or-less continually paying fines to the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission for failing to live up to the terms of its franchise agreement, in terms of service response, outages, and overall customer satisfaction.

From my perspective, Qwest's overall improvement indirectly coincides with Nacchio's ouster: back in the dot-com bubble, Nacchio was fairly famous for trying to move Qwest away from dialtone and into data services—and Qwest actually built a laudable (e.g. fast and dumb) data network to back up that idea. But when the Internet bubble burst, so did Qwest's stock price, and the only thing which (barely) kept the company afloat was its previous acquisition of US West and all that yummy money from telephone service franchises in western states like Washington.

Nacchio and eight other former Qwest executives are currently undergoing trial for fraud on restating more than $3 billion in revenue. Nacchio himself faces 42 counts of insider trading, many surrounding transactions in which he sold $101 million in Qwest stock when he realized the company wasn't going to meet its projected revenue goals, even after it cooked its books. Nacchio's currently out and about on $2 million bail.

It's just…ironic. The same man who (allegedly) washed several billion dollars out of his company's shareholders apparently stood up to the NSA in defense of his customers' privacy rights.

Related Entries