Tom Devine: Who's listening to our conversations?

Tom Devine

Big Brother has joined nearly every American family. He lives in the cell phone, if a highly credible whistleblower's March disclosure to Congress accurately reflects the telecommunications industry's standard operating procedure.

The affidavit of Babak Pasdar, a recognized national computer security expert, raises basic questions that Congress must answer before deciding on telecom immunity, such as "Immunity for what?" It raises fundamental questions about whether the reality of privacy still exists, let alone the right.

In the fall of 2003 Pasdar was hired by a major telecommunications carrier to overhaul its security. He says he discovered a mysterious "Quantico Circuit" with access to the entire mobile network that didn't have any security controls. Nor did it have any usage logs making a record of what information flowed through the system. The security breach was unheard of, abandoning basic industry norms practiced in the rest of the telecom's lines.

Quantico, Va., is the company town for massive military and FBI operations. According to Pasdar, whoever was on the other end had access to everything in each American's life connected with the telecom's mobile network -- all calls, e-mails, text messages, Internet use, videos, billing, location -- with no record of what was taken.

When Pasdar insisted on basic controls, the corporate security director drove out to sternly inform him that he had never seen the Quantico Circuit. That nothing would change. That if he did not forget about it, someone else would be brought in who could.

Pasdar backed off but was haunted by the implications. In 2006 and 2007, he anonymously briefed congressional committees, whose follow-up queries were stonewalled. In late February, he decided to go public, horrified by imminent House approval for Senate-passed retroactive telecom immunity in legislation reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

He acted in a March 4 affidavit to Congress. On March 6, key members urged all 435 representatives not to "vote in the dark" for immunity until Pasdar's and related allegations were investigated.

On March 12, 35 good government groups urged answers to basic questions before any congressional vote on immunity: "Who was at the other end of the Quantico Circuit, and what information have they been obtaining? Is the circuit legal? Is its apparent lack of security legal or wise? How long has it been in operation? Who paid for construction and operation of the Quantico Circuit? Was the telecom paid by its recipients for using the circuit? What were the terms?"

On March 14, the House voted 214-195 to deny immunity. Blue Dog conservative Democrats backed their leadership, which rejected administration threats that legal accountability for telecoms would aid and abet terrorism.

The struggle is hardly over. The House FISA bill must be reconciled with a Senate version with blanket immunity. And President Bush promises to veto any legislation that doesn't retroactively exempt telecoms from the rule of law when violating it with the government.

But Pasdar's disclosure was the major development in a week that turned the political tide. There is a lesson here about whistleblowers and the power of the truth against abuses of power.

Congress is finalizing legislation to overhaul whistleblower laws. If it truly wants to know when the public's trust is betrayed, it will act quickly to provide genuine rights enforced through jury trials for the public's eyes and ears.

Pasdar's disclosure only earned a reprieve. The next step for voters is telling their Senators to stand up to administration bullying.

Politicians must make domestic spying a cornerstone election issue. After all, the war on terrorism is supposed to be about defending America's freedom. Doesn't that start at home?

Tom Devine is legal director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization at