Roots of surveillance standoff go back decades
In the old days, everyone was linked to a lug nut, and Jim Kallstrom liked it that way.
It was 1985, a simpler time for a cop like Kallstrom, who was in charge of setting telephone wiretaps on suspected drug dealers and mobsters for the FBI's New York City field office.
In New York, Kallstrom's cases were often won on the basis of incriminating evidence surreptitiously snatched from the mouths of criminal defendants through their phone lines.
With a mere 203,000 Americans using mobile phones, people were still tied to the ground, and that gave Kallstrom's world a certain comforting order.
On any given day, he could stand on a street corner in Manhattan, gaze up at an apartment building with its neat rows and columns of units stacked atop each other, and know that inside each one there was a telephone, tethered by thin copper wire to a single point, sometimes several miles away. In his mind's eye, Kallstrom could have imagined shrinking himself to the size of an electron and traveling over the phone line, down to the bottom of the building, then shooting beneath the streets, until he ended up in the basement of the telephone company's switching station. There, the wire emerged, pegged to a rack by a single copper lug nut. Acres of racks lined the walls, each holding rows and columns of lug nuts and their wires, neatly stacked atop each other -- the city of New York in analog miniature.
With a warrant in hand, Kallstrom could tell the technicians at the phone office, with whom he had become friendly over the years, "Go up on RR326." The tech would walk to the rack, find the wire, and clamp on a listening device. Instantly, Kallstrom became an invisible interloper.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors depended on these legal wiretaps to penetrate drug cartels, incriminate money launderers, and spy on mob families. And they needed to be absolutely certain that the line they were on belonged to the suspected dealer, or launderer, or capo named in the court-approved warrant. Not the guy in the apartment next door. Not someone down the block. This guy. This phone. RR326. Lest the agents violate a judge's order, and perhaps land themselves in jail, this had to be the very same line that snaked back through the subterranean maze of Manhattan, through all those blocks of concrete caverns, back to that certain apartment building, up through the walls and out of the jack and into the phone that was in the hand and next to the mouth of Kallstrom's target. It was, by design and necessity, a neat, specific system.
And then it all went sideways.
Kallstrom's friends in the phone company put him on notice in 1985: Over the next few years, those racks and stacks of wires and lug nuts would be swept into the technological dustbin. The telephone network was going digital. Technicians would no longer stand at a rack; they would sit at a keyboard. In some parts of the country that had already made the change, phone calls were traveling as a stream of 1's and 0's. Thousands of lines commingled in a single computer. When New York went digital, the phone techs told Kallstrom, they would no longer be able to tap him directly into RR326. In fact, they couldn't even tell him for sure where RR326 resided in this new engineering matrix.
At the same time that the phone companies were preparing for the transition to digital, the use of cellphones -- which were inherently harder to tap because they used phone lines differently than analog devices -- mushroomed. From 1985 to '86, the number of registered mobile-phone subscribers in the United States doubled to 500,000. Within two years after that, the number climbed to 1.6 million. By the end of the decade, the cellphone universe had skyrocketed past 4 million.
Organized crime was an early adopter of the mobile phone. In a communications technique presaging that of Islamic terrorists today, members of the Colombian Cali drug cartel operating in New York would briefly use a phone, toss it, and get a new one. To tap a mobile device, technicians had to install listening equipment on the new version of a lug nut -- an "electronic port." But in most switching stations in New York, there were only half a dozen or so ports available at any one time. Federal prosecutors and agents had to stand in line at phone company offices and fight with each other over whose investigation should take priority. Some prosecutors threatened to haul company employees into court on contempt charges so they could explain to a judge why the phone company was unwilling to execute a wiretap order.
Electronic surveillance, once such a dependable, relatively easy craft, was becoming inordinately difficult, Kallstrom thought. The phone companies, whose annual revenues from mobile subscriptions were cresting over $2 billion in the late 1980s, showed little willingness to make the FBI's life easier. As the 1990s approached, with the promise of more digitization and more mobility, Kallstrom called his bosses in Washington: "If we don't do something, we'll be out of the wiretapping business."
A Battle Begins
Kallstrom may have been the first to alert the FBI and the Justice Department to this new reality. The digital revolution generated a constant tension that exists to this day, a push and pull between the federal government in one camp and technology corporations and civil-liberties activists in the other to control the development of the global communications system, and so the balance of power in the Information Age.
This struggle's latest manifestation is the intensely politicized effort to rewrite the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At issue is nothing less than the government's authority to broadly monitor communications networks to spot terrorists and other national security threats. The Bush administration finds itself across the battle lines from many of the same groups that more than a decade ago argued that the government was already extending its reach too far into personal conversations in the name of pursuing criminals.
While FISA governs wiretapping for intelligence-gathering purposes, as distinct from law enforcement, surveillance in both worlds follows the same essential philosophy -- the best evidence in a court of law or in an intelligence operation is one's own words. Today's dispute is not very different from the one that occurred during the dawn of digitization in the 1990s. Indeed, both are part and parcel of the same long-running debate.
No one should believe that real-time government surveillance of the communications network is an idea born of the 9/11 attacks or that it results solely from the Bush administration's aggrandizing of executive power. The legal arguments that the government has asserted to support increased surveillance of digital space were first put forth in 1994, under a Democratic president, and they had little to do with the threat of Islamic extremism.
Nor should anyone mistake the roots of the vociferous opposition to today's wiretapping from civil libertarians and privacy advocates. Many of these groups and their allies have been battling to restrict the government's use of new, potentially invasive technologies for a generation. The Bush White House is only their latest adversary, albeit the most formidable. These activists and their allies in the business world have been motivated by different but mutually supportive goals: to extend constitutional safeguards to the digital realm, and to keep the government from suffocating technological development with burdensome surveillance laws. Some in those ranks would have liked, and indeed tried, to make the digital network a wiretap-free zone.
But despite the occasionally extreme positions and deeply held convictions of all of these players, the most important laws governing wiretapping, electronic surveillance, and privacy have been the product of negotiation, of people gathering in a room, sitting at a table, and talking -- sometimes screaming -- until they reached a settlement. The current debate, however, is missing that crucial spirit. Whereas before, adversaries trusted each other enough at a basic level to make deals, however temporary, today's opposing sides seem unwilling to compromise to pass new surveillance laws that the nation can live with. It's not entirely clear where or why minds turned so stubborn. But to understand today's political calcification, it helps to recall a simpler time.
The Art of Compromise
Jerry Berman was a veteran of the privacy wars, seemingly born for the role of liberal, dogmatic activist. In the early 1950s, his father, a labor leader, was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. A native of Hawaii, the younger Berman moved with his family to California, where he enrolled at the University of California (Berkeley). After earning his bachelor's and master's, and, in 1967, his law degree, Berman began lobbying for the American Civil Liberties Union. He became an authority on the intersection of national security and technology, schooled by the exposure of illegal FBI spying operations aimed at political organizations, war protesters, and leftist activists. In 1978, Berman helped to craft the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set new restrictions on the government's domestic intelligence-gathering. He was present at the creation of several important pieces of surveillance legislation, and he helped secure individual privacy protections.
In playing his role, Berman didn't adhere to a hard-and-fast position but instead embraced his own brand of "principled pragmatism." By his logic, the interests of privacy and national security were not incompatible. If all sides -- government, industry, civil-liberties activists -- could find ways to "maximize the good and minimize the harm," as he liked to say, they could strike a satisfactory balance and create workable laws. This idea guided his work on FISA and other legislation, sometimes to the consternation of more-ideological activists who employed him to lobby Congress on their behalf.
Perhaps that was because principled pragmatism recognized an unsavory reality: In Washington, those who show up to play the game make the rules. Negotiation requires sacrifice. Sacrifice requires flexibility. Some people would rather break than bend. But compromise is how things get done, and Berman accepted it. As a colleague summarized Berman's general approach to lawmaking, "You can stand on your principle and get your ass handed to you, or you can engage in the process and get a better deal."
In the summer of 1994, the FBI and the Justice Department made a bold play to force the telecom carriers to help them conduct legal wiretaps. They put forth a proposal that would require the companies to build their networks so that law enforcement agents serving a warrant could access them in real time. The legality of wiretapping was not in question. The government wanted legal assurance that it could tap, at any time, and that the industry had an obligation under law to comply with the government's proper authority.
No more computer-related hassles, no more standing in line to plug into mobile-phone ports. Law enforcement agents, federal spymasters, and prosecutors wanted a comprehensive remedy to what they called the "digital telephony" problem. Their chief advocates were Kallstrom and Louis Freeh, the recently appointed FBI director, a former special agent and federal prosecutor who had used wiretaps to secure convictions in some of the most complicated organized-crime investigations in history. Freeh personally pushed for the new law, showing up unannounced in reluctant lawmakers' offices to press them for support and even sitting in on committee markups -- an unprecedented move for an FBI director -- to stare members down.
The 1994 proposal was only the latest in a series of government efforts to strengthen its control of the telecommunications network. In the late 1980s, Justice officials had gotten as far as placing language in an anti-crime bill that would have allowed the attorney general to set standards for telecommunications equipment, effectively making that federal official the network's architect-in-chief. (The bill did not pass.)
In 1993, Bill Clinton, in one of his first presidential directives, announced that engineers at the National Security Agency, the intelligence community's electronic surveillance arm, had developed a cutting-edge microcircuit, called the "Clipper" chip, to scramble telephone conversations. The administration intended to promote the installation of the Clipper technology in U.S. telephones, and planned to hold "in escrow" the digital keys to decrypt any conversation. In other words, the federal government would build the lock and keep the key, an idea that inspired a reaction somewhere between outrage and apoplexy among technologists and privacy advocates, who ultimately killed the idea.
In that atmosphere of hostility and skepticism, Berman went to work. Beginning in August 1994, he convened a series of meetings with senior law enforcement officials under the auspices of a privacy and security coalition he had formed with more than four dozen activist groups and technology companies -- including the biggest telecom provider of all, AT&T -- plus the U.S. Telephone Association, IBM, and software makers such as Microsoft. The goal was to resolve differences over the government's proposal to ensure federal access to telecommunications networks. Berman also brought in two powerful Democratic lawmakers and noted civil libertarians, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and then-Rep. Don Edwards, whose district included California's Silicon Valley. Everyone in the negotiating room had some familiarity with technology issues, and professional experience in law enforcement or Justice Department oversight.
The meetings featured intense, nitty-gritty debates over the technical aspects of the law. The FBI wanted guarantees that the telecom system would never mature beyond the reach of its wiretaps. Some companies saw this as heavy-handed regulation, and a number of telecom officials shared the activists' belief that the government was in fact after a permanent covert backdoor into the phone system. The negotiations helped to somewhat dampen the suspicions, however, and the talks went forward because no one in the room disagreed with the fundamental premise that the government had the right to wiretap.
But outside of the meetings, divisions festered among the interest groups. Berman represented the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which champions the public interest in the digital realm, but its board couldn't decide whether compromise was prudent or perilous. Berman felt he had to persuade his colleagues, in another series of heated meetings, to work in the middle. To him, that meant that the legislative negotiations would follow an inviolate principle: We will only craft solutions to known problems. No writing of laws aimed at encompassing future problems. If the FBI has difficultly accessing the public telephone network, then the law will address only that public telephone network.
In addition to identifying a philosophical guideline, this approach served a more strategic goal -- to keep the FBI's hands off the Internet, which was so new in 1994 as to be practically notional. Internet service providers such as America Online and Prodigy had only a handful of subscribers, and the first Web browser had been released that year, in a beta test version. Still, Berman and others knew that the FBI would never willingly agree to stay off the information superhighway, because Internet-based information held tremendous potential value for law enforcement.
During one meeting, David Johnson, a lawyer who had helped to craft the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986, held up a glass jar full of rocks and asked, "How many of you would say this jar is full?" Most people agreed that it was. Johnson took a fistful of pebbles and dropped them into the jar. They tinkled down through the rocks, finding resting places in the empty spaces. Then he poured sand into the jar. As it cascaded into the empty spaces, Johnson told the onlookers that the sand was like the unseen, seemingly insignificant "transactional data" that traveled on the Internet. Transactional data includes the routing information for a text-based message -- where it comes from, where it goes, and what path it follows -- and the series of digits that make up an Internet address. This information would someday be of enormous value to the government, he said, just as phone call records, as opposed to actual conversations, already were. The transactional data were small but meaningful -- like the tiny grains of sand that kept filling the volume of the jar.
Johnson's vivid illustration convinced many of the participants that the new law mustn't extend too far. Again, the issue wasn't whether law enforcement had a right to information but how much power the government should have over the means to get it. Leahy and Edwards, who formally introduced the legislation shortly thereafter, declared that it would apply solely to the public telephone network. The law specifically exempted "information services," which the parties agreed included Internet companies and electronic-messaging technologies.
The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act passed in the closing days of the 103rd Congress, two weeks before Republicans won control of both chambers in November 1994. CALEA would let the industry set its own standards to meet the Justice Department's needs. The department could list its surveillance requirements, but the act let companies decide how to build their equipment. Justice won the right to petition the Federal Communications Commission if its officials felt that the companies weren't fulfilling their obligations. But civil-liberties groups also secured the right to challenge the government's requirements in court.
It was a true compromise, hard won but workable. For Berman, principled pragmatism had carried the day. For others, however, the compromise had given away too much.
The board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation had seen the proverbial legislative sausage being made and found it distasteful. Even though the directors had agreed to every aspect of the law, which Berman explained to them, within weeks after its passage he left the EFF and formed his own outfit, the Center for Democracy and Technology, to continue his brand of lobbying. The EFF pulled up stakes in Washington the following year and moved to San Francisco, where it continues to play a leading role in supporting lawsuits against telecommunications companies -- most notably AT&T, its former ally -- for their role in assisting the government with warrantless wiretapping after the 9/11 attacks.
At the time, Berman confided to Kallstrom, whom he thought had always acted in good faith for the FBI, "My work on CALEA got me fired."
Kallstrom was apparently happy to see his more idealistic opponents leave town. "You didn't get fired, Jerry," he replied. "You got promoted."
Had the FBI and the Justice Department stopped there, had the government settled for secure access to phone networks, the history of Internet privacy and civil liberties might have turned out differently. But just weeks after President Clinton signed CALEA in January 1995, conflict erupted between the government and the phone carriers over the kind of network access the law provided. The raft of compromise that had carried the deal sprung a leak.
FBI officials knew in 1994 that they were making a mistake by leaving cyberspace out of CALEA. They understood the Internet's potential as a communications device and an intelligence tool -- that is, after all, why CALEA's authors exempted "information services."
"Did we know that it was idiotic to carve that out?" Kallstrom asks now. "Yes, we did." Criminals have always been among the first to embrace new technology. It was foolish to think that they wouldn't turn to the Internet for any number of nefarious gambits. But, Kallstrom says, government officials opted "to fight another day" over Internet access. Privacy advocates were dragging their feet in the negotiations. Delay would invite more debate, probably more hearings, and possibly a less favorable outcome. The political decision was made: "Let's take what we can get here."
In early 1995, the Justice Department issued its list of requirements for wiretapping, known as the punch list. Not surprisingly, many telecom executives and their attorneys viewed the demands as unreasonable. Al Gidari, a lawyer representing the wireless industry, was among the first to see the FBI's requirements, during the initial meeting to develop standards for CALEA, which was held that spring in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Justice Department's wish list, he said, amounted to "the Cadillac of wiretaps."
"Everything they could ever think of to gold plate and put on the Cadillac was in that document," Gidari recalls. Meeting its expectations represented "an exponential increase in complexity, not a linear increase.... They were very dictatorial ... technical requirements -- the very thing that Congress said it wasn't up to [the FBI] to figure out."
The standards meeting was tense and awkward, and the sides were unevenly matched. Gidari recalls a dozen or more FBI agents, in neat blue suits, all buttoned down and looking ready to roll over anyone who stood in their way. Arrayed on the opposite side of the table was a group of laid-back and casually dressed network engineers from all the major telecom equipment manufacturers and carriers that was tasked with the unenviable job of telling the bureau that the industry planned to build a much less complex system. It wasn't what the FBI agents wanted to hear.
Over the next few years, the Justice Department continued to seek increasingly sophisticated surveillance capabilities, including real-time geographical tracking of mobile phones; the ability to monitor all parties in a conference call regardless of whether they are on hold or participating; and "dialed digit extraction," a record of any numbers that a subject under surveillance punched in during a call, such as a credit card or bank account number. The government got a lot of what it wanted, but not all.
To be sure, criminals' use of new technologies helped drive the law enforcement demands. But telecom carriers worried that the cost of compliance was too high and that the FBI's technical requirements were illegally broad. CALEA, they argued, had forbidden the government from requiring specific system designs or technologies.
The FCC's Turn
Justice, frustrated by its inability to get all the demands on the punch list, finally asked the FCC to step in. In 1997, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which then represented mobile carriers, and the Center for Democracy and Technology complained to the commission that the negotiations had deadlocked because of "unreasonable demands by law enforcement for more surveillance features than either CALEA or the wiretap laws allow." The FCC, however, sided with the Justice Department on a host of requirements that privacy groups found overly broad. The tussle dragged on for two more years and ended up in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which overruled the FCC. After the commission took up matters again, it granted some of the FBI's requests, and the CALEA standards were amended.
When Justice Department officials reported to Congress on CALEA implementation in January 1998, no manufacturer of telecom equipment said that the FBI's demands were impossible to meet, but they did say that complying would be difficult and very expensive. (Although Congress had set aside $500 million to reimburse companies for retrofitting their networks, the law required the carriers to bear the cost of compliance on any equipment put in place after CALEA was enacted. Several experts believe that the final cost for compliance on telephone networks has been two to eight times the amount originally allotted.)
The level of government surveillance was so low at that time that some questioned why the FBI wanted such multifaceted access at all. In 1994, federal and state authorities were running 1,154 wiretaps nationwide, mostly for drug investigations, at an average cost of $50,000. The government was asking carriers to "design a nuclear rocket ship" for a rarely used tool, Gidari thought. "In [the FBI's] view, there was no limit to the expense the carrier should spare in order to save a life."
CALEA continued to evolve, shaped by the ongoing arguments over the terms of its birth. Activists and carriers thought that the FBI was reneging on its bargain, asking for more than the law allowed. The FBI believed that carriers were stalling when they failed to meet compliance deadlines. As all sides dug in, the meetings on implementation turned bitter. FBI and Justice officials slammed their hands on tables and screamed at carrier representatives, Gidari recalls. "You're unpatriotic! What do you want to do, help the criminals?"
The government asked those same questions after September 11, 2001. And this time, telecommunications carriers responded. Outside the normal FISA warrant process, which covers intelligence-gathering, carriers opened access to their networks, their customer call data, and their valuable transactional information -- the kind that CALEA had intended to exclude. President Bush and his administration believed that the extraordinary nature of the terrorist attacks demanded emergency actions that FISA couldn't accommodate, and the carriers answered the call from law enforcement and intelligence agencies. But government officials also seized on the post-9/11 mentality to change other surveillance laws and procedures, which they believed -- just as their predecessors did in 1994 -- were out of step with technology and reality. About three years after 9/11, officials set their sights on rewriting CALEA.
Claiming the Internet
In August 2004, in response to a petition by the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FCC expanded CALEA to cover Internet communications, including voice calls and instant messages. The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued, along with industry, civil-liberties, and academic groups. In 2005, the Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to defer to the FCC's reading of the law.
Many of those who had helped craft CALEA believed that the commission had misread the law and acted on a post-9/11 impulse to give the government more, not less, access to information. But to the FCC, new Internet technologies that operate a lot like telephones blurred the distinction between "information services" and the kinds of technology that CALEA was meant to cover.
After 9/11, law enforcement and intelligence agencies took a variety of measures, apart from wiretaps, to collect and mine potentially valuable information from the Internet. With the cooperation of telecom companies, government accumulated lots of transactional data -- including e-mail header information and lists of websites visited by targeted individuals -- to support counter-terrorism operations. Viewed solely as a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2001, this kind of collection might seem extraordinary. But through the longer lens of history, the government's steady march into cyberspace is not surprising.
Law enforcement agencies have never suffered for lack of access to the phone network. Kallstrom recalls only a few instances in which agents were unable to execute a wiretap order because of new technology. But as digital, mobile technology has proliferated, the copper lug nuts that Kallstrom remembers from the 1980s have disappeared. Today, state and federal agents spend most of their tap time on mobile devices. In 1994, most wiretaps, by far, targeted private residences. There were few taps on mobile devices. Ten years later, 88 percent of the 1,710 wiretaps were on mobile devices. Only 5 percent were on residential lines. Without CALEA, some experts believe that Kallstrom's initial fears would have come true and the federal government would have been shut out of the wiretapping business.
Jerry Berman never wanted that to happen. Although he cannot accept that the law that was meant to minimize the government's influence over the Internet is now being used to facilitate it, he is willing to negotiate on CALEA again, if that is what's necessary to satisfy all parties.
That willingness to talk extends to FISA, as well, and Berman's Center for Democracy and Technology has been actively involved in the current agitations over the law. But whenever he and his cohorts have extended the hand of compromise to Congress or the administration, he says, they have been disappointed. Any attempt to revamp FISA, or to clarify CALEA, "is impossible in the current climate," Berman says. "There is no sense that you could get the kind of negotiation we got in 1994."
FISA and CALEA
One has to wonder how strong that spirit of compromise really was in 1994, and whether it was already ebbing. If the FBI was willing to take what it could get on CALEA and go on to fight another day, did the government really "settle" at all? Literally weeks after CALEA was signed the Justice Department and the FBI came roaring back with new demands. What killed the penchant for negotiation? Was it the moderates' loss of power in both political parties after the 1994 Republican revolution? Was it the entrenchment of civil-liberties activists? Was it the Bush White House's extravagant interpretation of executive power? Was it 9/11?
Berman spends a lot of time pondering these questions and thinking about next moves. He divides his time between Washington, where he chairs his group's board of directors, and a home he built on the Cacapon River near Berkeley Springs, W.Va. "We just have people in bunkers now," Berman says ruefully.
The FISA debate is currently hung up on whether companies that assisted warrantless surveillance after 9/11 should have retroactive legal immunity for any laws they may have broken. CALEA has something to say about that, too. The law requires that carriers be able to deliver call identification information to the government remotely. According to Beryl Howell, Sen. Leahy's lead CALEA staffer, that provision was meant to keep government agents from sitting in the phone companies' offices to execute their wiretaps.
It is a basic tenet of wiretapping law, whether for intelligence or law enforcement, that the communications companies act as a buffer between their customers and the government, she says, and that telecom carriers must make their own determination whether official requests are, in fact, legal. That the companies would now assert, in defense of their cooperation, that the government determined that post-9/11 requests were legal, strikes Howell as outrageous.
If ever there was a time for the bare-knuckled negotiations of the past, it's now. It's not at all clear, though, who could play the role of Jerry Berman, the one to bring people into the room to scream and yell at each other and emerge feeling better for it -- and possibly even coming to a compromise. As things stand, Congress appears more likely to punt the FISA debate to the new administration, and has shown little interest in revisiting CALEA.
The constant tension that once kept this system in balance has reached a breaking point. There is no push and pull. Maybe the stakes are too high for compromise. But until that spirit returns, Berman says, "there will be no peace."