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Whistleblower's slog to get wiretap story into the media.

Retired AT&T technician Mark Klein blew the whistle on National Security Agency wiretaps of individuals' phone calls in 2006 and still has information to share. How major news outlets blocked Klein's disclosures in an election year is a story in itself.

Klein filed an affidavit in federal court in San Francisco in early April, 2006, revealing that the NSA had constructed a secret room in an AT&T facility to monitor telephone and Internet communications. The affidavit supported a class action lawsuit against AT&T brought in January by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, alleging that AT&T violated the law by cooperating with the government's warrantless wiretapping.

Klein had worked for AT&T as a technician for more than 22 years. He worked as a computer network associate in AT&T's facility on Geary Street in San Francisco. In 2002, he said in his affidavit, an AT&T superior told Klein to expect a visit from an NSA agent, to interview a colleague for a "special job."

In 2003, Klein was transferred to AT&T's Folsom Street facility, a large phone and Internet hub. He became aware that the NSA had set up a secure room there, later known as the "SG3 Secure Room." He said a "splitter cabinet" had been installed where the public's phone calls were routed and were being diverted to the "SG3 Secure Room." Klein also heard that secret rooms were constructed at AT&T facilities in San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Klein's disclosure was first reported on April 7, 2006. Wire services carried the story, it was on the Internet, and CNN did a few segments. Most print periodicals, however, did not pick it up. Aside from tech publications, it showed up mainly in California papers--the San Francisco Chronicle, and especially the San Jose Mercury News. The New York Times ran one article as did the National Journal.

Unlike the newspapers, the Bush administration watched the lawsuit closely, soon initiating a "state secrets" claim to stop it. The Bush Justice Department's countermove generated further news coverage--again rather modest, given the allegation that AT&T had illegally funneled millions of private communications to the NSA.

USA Today joined the story in May 2006 with a story headlined, "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls." Its reporting on the NSA database sparked outrage in the public and in Congress.

Perhaps the level of outrage scared off some corporate media outlets, either because of politics or because the telecoms were major advertisers. In any case, the Washington Post did not mention Klein until May 18, in a short piece from Bloomberg News reporting that a federal judge had allowed the EFF lawsuit against AT&T to go forward. Indeed, the Post did not run any original reporting on Klein's affidavit until August 14, 2007.

On May 22, 2006 Wired News published the NSA-AT&T documents, 29 pages of evidence linked on numerous blogs. covered the AT&T story--and followed up in June with a detailed piece on another NSA secret room at an AT&T facility in St. Louis--but dailies still tended to give it a miss, except when defending the NSA and AT&T or pooh-poohing the class action.

News articles during summer 2006 mainly tracked the lawsuit, reporting when 17 lawsuits filed nationwide against the telecoms were consolidated in the District Court case in San Francisco and reporting when the state secrets claim was rebuffed in court. Again, any news articles ran mainly in California papers, in Slate and, or in tech publications. National press coverage of the NSA-AT&T matter lulled from summer 2006 to February or March 2007. Ironically, considering that EFF filed the lawsuit based largely on some initial reporting in the LA Times, in December 2005, the paper dropped the story.

Klein, interviewed by telephone, said he tried to bring out the story in January 2006 and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times "was planning a big story," but nothing was used. He believes someone "spoke to the government" and to then-NSA Director Michael V. Hayden, "who told them not to run it."

Klein then went to the New York Times but in March 2006 the paper "stopped calling me." Finally, he says, in April the story broke when EFF asked Klein to be a witness in their lawsuit against AT&T: "The government stepped in, and said we want to see the documents [non-classified engineering documents, retained by Klein when he retired from AT&T].... Suddenly the media started calling; then the New York Times called me back" and ran articles," Klein said, adding that the Times "showed the [internal] documents to four experts, who all agreed on them.... that was helpful." Still, the story died down again: "The media were conflicted," Klein says, "Quiet, silent.... this kept happening."

Klein thought he was making headway when he taped an interview with 60 Minutes in September 2006 with Steve Croft. "It was to be an exclusive--I couldn't talk to anybody else." But the interview never aired. Klein points out the timing: "Throughout the 2006 election period, my mouth was taped shut. I couldn't say anything when people called me up."

"Then in 2007," Klein says, "I was interviewed by ABC, then on PBS Frontline. Both did a good job." PBS interviewed him for a documentary on NSA spying which aired May 16, 2007. But Klein refers to the 60 Minutes experience as a "blackout. I have to think that was political. Somebody higher up put a political kibosh on it."

Klein came to Washington in November 2007 to oppose legislation giving the telecoms immunity from litigation. He held a Washington news conference; National Public Radio and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown interviewed him. The Washington Post ran an article by Ellen Nakashima.

The Bush administration won the telecoms immunity battle in 2008, against the backdrop of a presidential primary season and little significant coverage of the AT&T controversy. On July 8, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did run an op-ed coauthored by Klein and Babak Pasdar, who came forward with similar claims about another wireless carrier. On the telecom immunity legislation, the op-ed piece said "Today's vote could legalize past illegal government spying."

Klein says the main cases were dismissed in June 2009, a year after the immunity legislation passed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation suit against NSA just got dismissed recently.

No major papers ran articles about Klein in 2009 or have run them in 2010. Olbermann included a segment on MSNBC on April 8, 2009. Klein brought out his book, "Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine," in July 2009.

"Warrants, according to the Fourth Amendment, have to be very specific. A splitter is not specific. It sweeps up everything. It's inherently illegal by virtue of the apparatus.... obviously they wanted to get domestic calls as well as foreign calls," Klein said.

He favors repealing immunity for the telecoms. "The only way to stop this [surveillance] is physically to rip this equipment out.... The government will use it as long as it's there," Klein says.

All of the Electronic Frontier Foundation lawsuits have been dismissed in the courts except one, Al-Haramain v. Bush, in which plaintiffs used a government document to show that the government had used illegal eavesdropping. San Francisco's federal court allowed the Al-Haramain case to go forward with the condition that the actual document not be used. Defendants include FBI Director Robert Mueller.

On July 19, 2010, the Washington Post began a three-part series called "Top Secret America," on the hidden world of 1,271 governments organizations and 1,931 private companies working in secret intelligence programs in 10,000 locations across the United States. A political meme routinely favored by media outlets in 2010 opposes investigation and prosecution of Bush officials in favor of "moving forward." But if the Mark Klein story teaches us anything, it is that secrecy and concealment are moving backward.

Margie Burns is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., and teaches college English.
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Title Annotation:Mark Klein
Author:Burns, Margie
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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