© 2013 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON - The CIA is paying AT&T more than $10 million a year to assist with overseas counterterrorism investigations by exploiting the company’s vast database of phone records, which includes Americans’ international calls, according to government officials.
The cooperation is conducted under a voluntary contract, not under subpoenas or court orders compelling the company to participate, according to the officials. The CIA supplies phone numbers of overseas terrorism suspects, and AT&T searches its database and provides records of calls that may help identify foreign associates, the officials said. The company has a huge archive of data on phone calls, both foreign and domestic, that were handled by its network equipment, not just those of its own customers.
The program adds a new dimension to the debate over government spying and the privacy of communications records, which has been focused on National Security Agency programs in recent months. The disclosure sheds further light on the ties between intelligence officials and communications service providers. And it shows how agencies beyond the NSA use metadata - logs of the date, duration and phone numbers involved in a call, but not the content - to analyze links between people through programs regulated by an inconsistent patchwork of legal standards, procedures and oversight.
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Because the CIA is prohibited from spying on the domestic activities of Americans, the agency imposes privacy safeguards on the program, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because it is classified. Most of the call logs provided by AT&T involve foreign-to-foreign calls, but when the company produces records of international calls with one end in the United States, it does not disclose the identity of the Americans and “masks” several digits of their phone numbers, the officials said.
Still, the agency can refer such masked numbers to the FBI, which can issue an administrative subpoena requiring AT&T to provide the uncensored data. The bureau handles any domestic investigation, but sometimes shares with the CIA the information about the American participant in those calls, the officials said.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the CIA, declined to confirm the program. But he said the agency’s intelligence collection activities were lawful and “subject to extensive oversight.”
Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said: “We value our customers’ privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects. We do not comment on questions concerning national security.”