Olympic Fact-Checking of the NSA

One of the disclosures from yesterday’s WSJ blockbuster that shocked a lot of people was that the NSA and FBI collected all the email and phone communications from Salt Lake City around the time of the 2002 Olympics.

For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, officials say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA arranged with Qwest Communications International Inc. to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event. It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area.

At first I wasn’t all that interested. After all, the relationship was discussed in the 2009 Draft NSA IG Report.

But now I am. (Thanks to David Waldman for convincing me to look back at the IG Report.)

Compare what the WSJ reported with what the IG Report says:

2002: In early 2002, NSA SSO personnel met with the Senior Vice President of Government Systems and other employees from COMPANY E. Under the authority of the PSP, NSA asked COMPANY E to provide call detail records (CDR) in support of security for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. On 11 February 2002, the company’s CEO agreed to cooperate with NSA. On 19 February 2002, COMPANY E submitted a written proposal that discussed methods it could use to regularly replicate call record information stored in a COMPANY E facility and potentially forward the same information to NSA. Discussions with COMPANY E continued in 2003. However, the COMPANY E General Counsel ultimately decided not to support NSA.

It goes on to say that Michael Hayden sent two letters to Company E, which I have always presumed was Qwest.

There are a number of discrepancies here:

  • WSJ says both FBI and NSA were involved; NSA IG (which, of course, was reporting exclusively on NSA’s role) described only NSA involvement
  • NSA IG said NSA discussed only call records with (presumably) Qwest; WSJ says call and Internet content were also involved
  • NSA IG dates discussions to February 11; the Olympics started on February 8 and went through February 24
  • NSA IG says discussions continued into 2003, which would be longer than the 6 month period the WSJ discussed

Now, several things may be going on here. It may be that FBI initiated this production, and after it started NSA tried to institutionalize it (effectively using the Olympics as an excuse to get Qwest involved in ongoing production like AT&T and Verizon were). It could be Company E is not Qwest at all (though that would raise questions about why NSA IG ignored Qwest’s reported involvement altogether). It may be that NSA IG is incorrect–there are other examples where their details don’t make sense, and my inclination is to suspect they’re spinning the Qwest negotiations. It may be that NSA IG is obscuring the start date of this — 6 months prior to the Olympics would be August 2001, before 9/11 purportedly authorized this larger collection (remember: WSJ reported that this production from AT&T started in the 1990s). It may be that WSJ’s sources are unclear about how this was done and in what time frame.

And consider that neither of these stories jive with Joseph Nacchio’s story. He says he was approached about doing warrantless surveillance on February 27, 2001. That time frame would make utmost sense to plan for the Olympics. But if it were true, it would also make Nacchio’s other claims — that the company and then he was prosecuted for not cooperating — more interesting. (Note, too, that the NSA IG Report doesn’t acknowledge that Nacchio was replaced as CEO during the period when, it claims, NSA was still discussing cooperation.)

None of it makes sense. But the apparent acknowledgment to WSJ that this did go on — and at a greater level of intrusiveness and earlier than the NSA IG lets on — sure merits new attention on Nacchio’s claims the government punished him for not cooperating in February 2001. It also merits new attention to the IG Reports produced in 2009; to what degree is the entire report a whitewash of much earlier, much more problematic domestic surveillance NSA didn’t want to disclose (ultimately, because they ordered this report) to Congress?

Update: Here are some posts I did on Nacchio in 2007.

Groundbreaker and the Secret Request

What Nacchio Tells Us about the NSA

The Prosecutors Response to Nacchio

Update on the Government’s Response to Nacchio

Did Nacchio Lie, or Just Misunderstand?

Note what I surmised here:

From reading the filing, I think (though I think others will disagree) that what Nacchio describes as Groundbreaker is at least the physical tap into switches that we know AT&T to have accomplished. That’s important, because Nacchio walked out of his meeting on February 27, 2001 willing to do Groundbreaker (at least the hardware side of it), but unwilling to do something else NSA requested at that meeting. Which means the telecom involvement goes beyond simply tapping into the switches, and the switch-related aspect is not the troubling side of it.

At least in current incarnation, the telecoms are asked to do an initial sort of data before they hand it over to the government. Was that it?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    i am not permitted to read the wsj article.

    can you tell who/where wsj got this new info about nsa domestic activities?

  2. orionATL says:

    well, well.

    here we have a domestic use of nsa, and beginning pre-terror-days at that.

    heretofore we were led to believe that nsa spied domestically only after it had bounced authorization off of some putative foreign-dwelling person.

    one can presume now with better reason that nsa has been systematically used domestically for electronic spying regarding major public events and political activism, e.g., for the bush ranch stakeout by anti-war groups, for spying en masse on “occupy”, for spying on “uncooperative” congressmen and governors, for major public events, sports or otherwise.

    this i’ve suspected is nsa’s most valuable use to power holders – for domestic “policing”.

  3. Jim White says:

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if Snowden eventually releases proof NSA started hammering on Nacchio in February of 2001? I wonder if that is why NSA and GCHQ are shitting diamonds.

  4. qweryous says:

    @orionATL: Do a search on the title of the article at the WSJ (New Details Show Broader NSA Surveillance Reach) and the search return link is the same as posted here, but the article may be viewed by clicking through the search engine. (Might require clearing cookies.)

  5. grayslady says:

    I’ve always believed that Nacchio was set up. I remember, at the time, Qwest’s counsel specifically requested a FISA court ruling, and when the NSA refused to provide one, Nacchio refused to play ball. Suddenly, the large NSA contracts are pulled? Retaliation, pure and simple. Remember, Nacchio’s outside counsel, Herbert Stern, was a former U.S. Attorney who was known for going after government wrongdoing (he was special counsel in the case against Oliver North). My guess then (and now) was that Stern’s experience told him that what Qwest was being asked to do didn’t pass legal muster. Poor Nacchio–he ended up in prison anyway, just on a different set of charges.

  6. Valley Girl says:

    Salt Lake City. Hmmm… that rang a bell. off to the Google.

    I found this op-doc by Laura Poitras.


    This piece above has a video by Poitras, and starts with images of Bluffdale Utah.

    And, this:

    “The decision must have been made in September 2001,” Mr. Binney told me and the cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. “That’s when the equipment started coming in.”

    September 2001.

    And, so on to 2002, around the time of the Winter Olympics. Salt Lake City.

    Was this an Olympic “test” of the ability of NSA and FBI to collect email and phone communications? Seems odd that test or not, collection was for Salt Lake City, in Utah, where UH…. big collection facility is built. Could be just a coincidence of Utah and Utah. Or, maybe, Olympics in Utah in 2002 provided the perfect collision of events?

    btw, the vid in the Poitras NYT piece is also available on YouTube.

    note that the Poitras piece was Published: August 22, 2012

  7. orionATL says:

    while trying to get my hands on the wsj piece, i ran across this article by a guy named bob swern. i found it and anothrr of his dkos articles very useful summaries of “what we’ve learned” :


    swern’s take on today’s wsj article is :


  8. orionATL says:

    @Valley Girl:

    i will indeed. poitras has become for me a heroine-leader.

    the comment you wrote about poitras video with binney’s statement about “equipment arriving” in 2001 just floored me – complete confirmation of some of the wsj info.

    actually, of course, it’s just the opposite – today’s wsj reporting provides confirmation of what poitras had reported.

    today’s events make me wonder if nsa/whitehouse aren’t moving to scoop poitras to take out some of the sting of her and greenwald’s reporting.

  9. orionATL says:


    in swern’s post “disturbing news on the early opening…” there is a nice, concise aclu summary of

    “The Ten Most Disturbing Things You Should Know About the FBI Since 9/11”.

  10. qweryous says:

    How A ‘Deviant’ Philosopher Built Palantir, A CIA-Funded Data-Mining Juggernaut

    From 2005 to 2008 the CIA was Palantir’s patron and only customer, alpha-testing and evaluating its software. But with Langley’s imprimatur, word of Palantir’s growing abilities spread, and the motley Californians began to bring in deals and recruits.


    In 2010 Palantir’s customers at the New York Police Department referred the company to JPMorgan, which would become its first commercial customer. A team of engineers rented a Tribeca loft, sleeping in bunk beds and working around the clock to help untangle the bank’s fraud problems. Soon they were given the task of unwinding its toxic mortgage portfolio. Today Palantir’s New York operation has expanded to a full, Batman-themed office known as Gotham, and its lucrative financial-services practice includes everything from predicting foreclosures to battling Chinese hackers.

  11. C says:

    An aquaintance once told me, absent any evidence, that when the President is in town for an event or when something like the superbowl happens that it is now routine to monitor all text messages and cellphone calls. He had gotten this off of some online blog. I myself have wondered about the extent to which the FBI and local law enforcement also have been ready to pre-arrest protesters at events such as the RNC convention. Yes they clearly had moles but they must have been monitoring for longer.

    Given what has been reported above I’m starting to believe that my aquantance, or the paranoiac who wrote the blog, was onto something.

    Have there been any foia requests, or court info, from past protests that might indicate that this kind of “big event” surveillance is now normalized? Certainly it would mesh with the kinds of things that the DEA are apparently doing but I have yet to see it backed up anywhere else.

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