The National Security Agency program to collect the phone records of millions of Americans operates through more than a dozen hubs of telecommunications providers across the country, and has been in place for years, according to several former employees of the agency.
The Guardian on Thursday reported that the NSA was collecting records from Verizon customers on an "ongoing, daily basis," and the Wall Street Journal on Friday said the NSA had arrangements with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.
Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, told U.S. News & World Report in a long-ranging interview last fall that the NSA had arrangements with - "you name it" - any service provider in the U.S. "that potentially has or holds subscriber or personally identifiable information."
In particular, Drake, who was hired by the NSA in 2001 to help the agency handle email and cell phone data, and who resigned in 2008 after whistle-blowing about U.S. invasions of privacy regarding those communications, described a number of AT&T hubs across the U.S. that are set up to collect and deliver information to the NSA.
"There were 16 different, at the time I was aware of it, AT&T centers across the country. They entered into an agreement [with] NSA known as the Daytona System," he said. AT&T, which did not immediately respond to request for comment, describes Daytona on its website as a "database management system for warehousing immense amounts of data," but does not say that data is being shared with the U.S. government.
In 2006, a San Francisco-based collection center operated for the NSA by AT&T was exposed to the public after a technician with the company stumbled across the center and initiated a class action lawsuit against AT&T for engaging in an illegal domestic-surveillance program. According to the suit, Daytona had collected 300 terabytes of data by the time of the lawsuit - equivalent to 300,000 copies of the digital Encyclopedia Britannica.
William Binney, a former director of the NSA's World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group, has said some 10 to 20 such collection centers exist across the U.S.
And these hubs have been in place for nearly a decade, according to Russ Tice, a former intelligence analyst for NSA and also a whistle-blower. Reached by phone Friday, Tice laughed at the idea that the court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April and published by the Guardian could be a one-time ruling. "It's just the three month update," said Tice, who alleged in 2005 that the NSA was involved in unconstitutional wiretapping of U.S. citizens and was fired the same year. "This began post-9/11. After 9/11, they started setting up the infrastructure for it, and it's a big infrastructure so it took a little while... But what this [document] has done is given empirical tangible proof of" what's happened for years, he said.
Drake called the court order a "routine re-authorization" of an order for a program that began shortly after 9/11, and became formalized by the PATRIOT Act's passage in October 2001.
The NSA declined to answer questions about the date this program started, or how many companies and hubs were involved. In a statement provided to U.S. News, the NSA said the practice "cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen" and that "information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect."