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Meet the Whistleblower Who Exposed the Secret Room AT&T Used to Help the NSA Spy on the Internet

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As documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden expose how AT&T aided the NSA’s vast spying operations, we speak to former AT&T technician Mark Klein, who worked at the company for 22 years. In 2006, he blew the whistle on AT&T’s cooperation with the National Security Agency by leaking internal documents that revealed the company had set up a secret room in its San Francisco office to give the NSA access to its fiber-optic Internet cables.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Mark Klein, a technician with AT&T for 22 years, who in 2006 blew the whistle on AT&T’s cooperation with the National Security Agency. He’s also author of Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine…And Fighting It. Mark, with these revelations, what do you think is most—well, most surprised you and is most important for us to understand?

MARK KLEIN: Well, of course, I feel very vindicated, and the documents reveal what I was saying back in 2003—well, actually, I came forward in 2006, but what I discovered in 2003 was that they were tying into the main Internet data stream. So these documents confirm that. There’s actually a paragraph in there that talks about, in September 2003, the NSA went live on the Internet because of the installations at AT&T. And so, I was right about that. They tried to dismiss me back then, because I didn’t work for the NSA.

I was a little surprised I didn’t know about that the program with AT&T went back to 1985, which is mentioned in The New York Times article. I’m not sure what that’s about. But I assume that might be phone calls, because there wasn’t very much Internet back in 1985. But it indicates the very close, friendly relationship between AT&T and the NSA.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark, can you go back? I mean, we talked to you, what—when was it? In 2008 on Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you go back and talk about how you found what you found? What exactly was your job at AT&T?

MARK KLEIN: Well, I was a communications technician. I took care of the data lines and the equipment in central office. And in late 2002, we heard there was an installation going in at a nearby office, which turned out was an NSA installation, because the NSA actually showed up at my office to interview the one guy who was not one of us, not one of the union technicians. Only that one guy, who was NSA-cleared, could work in this room. So that told us right there that this was an NSA installation. And the following year, in 2003, I was transferred to that office, 611 Folsom Street. And I was in charge of the Internet room. So, I hadn’t—as part of my job, I got hold of engineering documents to show what they were doing. And I actually had to hook up fiber-optic cables to a cabinet, which were connected down to the secret room. And the documents I got hold of showed very clearly that they were blindly sweeping up everything going across those key Internet peering links, they’re called, which connected AT&T’s network to other companies, like Qwest and what have you. So they were sweep—

AMY GOODMAN: So they were all collaborating, this idea of peering?

MARK KLEIN: Peering is when you connect different networks together. That’s how you get the Internet, basically. So, that meant that they were sweeping up everybody’s communications, not just AT&T customers, but any—anybody or other companies who were not aware of this arrangement back then. They were sweeping up all that stuff, without any selection, because the apparatus they were using to sweep it up with had no intelligence. It was just a blind sweep of everything, which told me right then and there that was unconstitutional.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?

MARK KLEIN: Well, at that moment, I did nothing, because I was too scared, and I didn’t know if I could find anyone to believe me, because who was I? I didn’t work for the NSA; I worked for AT&T. All I had were these engineering documents, which showed an intrusion into the AT&T network by somebody. But I came forward later, after I retired.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you release the information?

MARK KLEIN: Well, I retired in 2004, and then, after The New York Times came out with a revelation article in December 2005 revealing that this kind of collaboration with the phone companies was going on for surveillance, I came forward in 2006, went to the Electronic Frontier Foundation with my documents. And I wanted to point out, because the government line at that time was they’re just looking at foreign-to-foreign communications or domestic-to-foreign communications; they’re not looking at the domestic population, their privacy is safe. But I knew from the apparatus they were using, they were sweeping up domestic-to-domestic communications. It was obvious from the way it was set up. So I went to the EFF. They filed a lawsuit against AT&T in March 2006. And then we had a big fight for several years after that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Larson, is this a violation of the Constitution?

JEFF LARSON: Well, so what’s weird about the documents that we published is that AT&T is doing the filtering on behalf of the NSA. The telecoms, as part of an act passed in 2008 in response to the article that Mark Klein is talking about, got an exemption. But that doesn’t seem—but that still—the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution against unreasonable search and seizure still seems to apply to the NSA. In fact, in one court case, at the end of the court case, the government shut down—it was Clapper v. the NSA—I mean, the Clapper court case. They denied standing to the defendants—I mean, to the plaintiffs, by saying that even if there was a Fourth Amendment violation, it would only happen on the order of milliseconds, and it would be such a minor infraction against the Fourth Amendment that possible intelligence value would outweigh Fourth Amendment concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: Clearly, this is an issue people care about in this country. I wanted to turn to the first Republican primary debate that took place earlier this month. Presidential hopefuls New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got into a heated argument over NSA domestic surveillance.

SEN. RAND PAUL: And I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights, and I will continue to stand for the Bill of Rights.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: And—and, Megyn? Megyn, that’s a—that, you know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer: “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

SEN. RAND PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: What are you supposed to—

SEN. RAND PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: How are you supposed to—no, I’ll tell you how you—

SEN. RAND PAUL: Get a warrant!

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Look, let me tell you something. You go—

SEN. RAND PAUL: Get a judge to sign the warrant.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Chris Christie versus Rand Paul. Mark Klein, first, your response?

MARK KLEIN: Well, of course, you should get a warrant. They could have done that back then. They could have gone—used the FISA law. But George Bush simply disregarded the FISA law and approved it all on his own signature, which was totally illegal. So, you know, I might add that while there are a few dissidents in both parties, like Rand Paul in the Republican side and Ron Wyden on the Democratic side, both parties—the real political crime here is that both parties approved this when they passed the immunity bill for the phone companies in 2008, with the help of Barack Obama, I might add, and that killed the lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, that’s a very significant moment. I remember back then, this was right before that—it was, I think, in December of 2007 that Barack Obama had said that he would not, as senator, be approving retroactive immunity for the phone companies. Then he turned around. He not only supported it, he voted for it. We went to the Democratic convention in Denver, and everyone got those schwag bags, and right on the cover—right on the bags, it said “AT&T” on both sides, and one of the first major parties was a huge thank-you party for AT&T. Jeff Larson?

JEFF LARSON: Well, I wasn’t at the Democratic National Convention. But I do want to say, you know, they do get warrants—there is an apparatus for them to get—you know, they call them certifications, so they have a bunch of certifications, foreign government certifications. They also get warrants under the 215 program for purely domestic communications. But we don’t know the size of these warrants. They seem very, very bulky. It’s hard to—it’s hard to imagine that millions of emails, everybody gets a warrant for every single one of those millions of emails. And in the past we have seen that these certifications are particularly bulky.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to former Florida governor, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, who has been calling for the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, saying there’s no proof the metadata program violates civil liberties. This is Bush speaking to Face the Nation earlier this summer.

JEB BUSH: There’s no evidence, not a shred of evidence, that the metadata program has violated anybody’s civil liberties. The first duty of our national government is to protect the homeland, and this has been an effective tool, along with many others. And the PATRIOT Act ought to be reauthorized, as is.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeb Bush speaking earlier this summer. Jeff Larson?

JEFF LARSON: Well, I also want to point out that, going back to my previous point about warrants, that the 215 orders are particularly bulky, in that they’re every domestic phone call. Right? And what happened was, when this first came out, there was a Verizon order that was released in 2013, and the federal government said that this was largely landline. Part of the news in our story that we published was that AT&T is also handing over cellphone records, so who you call and what time you made those calls. And that’s an example of this sort of really bulky type of warrant that they’re able to get from the secret intelligence court.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to President Obama, to President Obama addressing the issue of the USA FREEDOM Act that was passed earlier this summer that requires the NSA to get a warrant in order to obtain records from phone companies. Obama was speaking earlier this summer, explaining what the act will succeed in doing.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The USA FREEDOM Act also accomplishes something I called for a year and a half ago: It ends the bulk metadata program, the bulk collection of phone records, as it currently exists and puts in place new reforms. The government will no longer hold these records; telephone providers will. The act also includes other changes to our surveillance laws, including more transparency, to help build confidence among the American people that your privacy and civil liberties are being protected.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Obama, Jeff Larson. So, he’s saying, “Don’t worry. We won’t hold your information. Companies like AT&T will.”

JEFF LARSON: So, what’s also—so, what’s also surprising about these new documents is that AT&T is already doing the filtering for the 702 program, which is Internet. So, the bulk records, they’re just moving bulk records from NSA-controlled full dump of every bulk record back to AT&T. But they already have this relationship with these—with telecom companies, who are doing, in essence, the filtering and the selecting on behalf of the NSA. So, it’s sort of a weird law, under these revelations, because half of the NSA’s programs, the bulkier part, is already done, already operated under that manner.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a difference between the telephone companies and the NSA?

JEFF LARSON: You know, I don’t know. The NSA, I think, sees the telecom companies as an important intelligence tool, but the telecom companies also have a very long history of complying with the NSA. Right? So, since 1985, we’re talking about a program that has lasted for decades. So it sort of seems like they’re busy.

AMY GOODMAN: So I want to go back to that AT&T quote that they gave us when we asked them to come on the show: “We do not provide information to any investigating authorities without a court order or other mandatory process other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence. For example, in a kidnapping situation we could provide help tracking down called numbers to assist law enforcement.” Are they lying?

JEFF LARSON: I don’t know. It’s hard to—it’s hard to say. Again, the secret court orders are secret, right? We don’t know what sorts of court orders they got. But it’s at odds with the documents, especially when the NSA’s own language is “extreme willingness to help,” “highly collaborative,” “really important partner.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mark Klein, when President Obama says, “Don’t worry. The reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act means the companies like yours, that you worked for, AT&T, will hold the information, not us”?

MARK KLEIN: Well, you should worry. They’re storing everything they collect, and they collect everything that they can get their hands on, as the NSA documents reveal. There’s no need for that. They should rip out the secret rooms. If they have some individual that they suspect, they can get a warrant for that individual, but they don’t have to collect billions and billions of communications, which is what they’re doing. That’s all too tempting for the government to use when they want to go after someone. And by the way, they didn’t stop a lot of attacks that happened. They had all this in place, and they didn’t stop the Boston bombing, for instance, even though they knew the perpetrators beforehand. So, this is all just an excuse to collect information on everybody, as far as I’m concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll continue to follow this story. Mark Klein, AT&T whistleblower, and Jeff Larson of ProPublica. And, of course, we’ll link to the major piece done in The New York Times, “AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale.”

This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute with an update on Chelsea Manning. Stay with us.

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