by Craig Timberg and Ellen
July 06, 2013
The U.S. government had a problem:
Spying in the digital age
required access to the fiber-optic cables traversing the world’s
oceans, carrying torrents of data at the speed of light.
And one of
the biggest operators of those cables was being sold to an Asian
firm, potentially complicating American surveillance efforts.
Enter “Team Telecom.”
In months of private talks, the team of lawyers from the FBI and the
departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security demanded that
the company maintain what amounted to an internal corporate cell of
American citizens with government clearances.
Among their jobs,
documents show, was ensuring that surveillance requests got
fulfilled quickly and confidentially.
This “Network Security Agreement,” signed in September 2003 by
Global Crossing, became a model for other deals over the past decade
as foreign investors increasingly acquired pieces of the world’s
The publicly available agreements offer a window into efforts by
U.S. officials to safeguard their ability to conduct surveillance
through the fiber-optic networks that carry a huge majority of the
world’s voice and Internet traffic.
The agreements, whose main purpose is to secure the U.S.
telecommunications networks against foreign spying and other actions
that could harm national security, do not authorize surveillance.
But they ensure that when U.S. government agencies seek access to
the massive amounts of data flowing through their networks, the
companies have systems in place to provide it securely, say people
familiar with the deals.
Negotiating leverage has come from a seemingly mundane government
power: the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to
approve cable licenses.
In deals involving a foreign company, say
people familiar with the process, the FCC has held up approval for
many months while the squadron of lawyers dubbed Team Telecom
developed security agreements that went beyond what’s required by
the laws governing electronic eavesdropping.
The security agreement for Global Crossing, whose fiber-optic
network connected 27 nations and four continents, required the
company to have a “Network Operations Center” on U.S. soil that
could be visited by government officials with 30 minutes of warning.
Surveillance requests, meanwhile, had to be handled by U.S. citizens
screened by the government and sworn to secrecy - in many cases
prohibiting information from being shared even with the company’s
executives and directors.
“Our telecommunications companies have no real independence in
standing up to the requests of government or in revealing data,”
said Susan Crawford, a Yeshiva University law professor and former
Obama White House official.
“This is yet another example where
that’s the case.”
The full extent of the National Security Agency’s access to
fiber-optic cables remains classified.
The Office of the Director of
National Intelligence issued a statement saying that legally
authorized data collection,
“has been one of our most important tools
for the protection of the nation’s - and our allies’ - security. Our
use of these authorities has been properly classified to maximize
the potential for effective collection against foreign terrorists
and other adversaries.”