WASHINGTON – The CIA annually pays AT&T more than $10 million to provide phone records with possible links to suspected terrorists, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing government officials.
The arrangement is voluntary and there is no court order requiring the company to cooperate with the agency, officials were quoted as saying in the report.
The program differs from controversial data collection by the National Security Agency, which receives phone records or other “meta-data” from telecommunications companies through court orders.
The CIA passes on phone numbers of suspected militants abroad and AT&T then sifts through its database for records of phone calls that can identify foreigners with terrorist links, the newspaper said. Most of the logs handed over by AT&T are related to foreign-to-foreign calls.
For international calls that include one end in the United States, the company does not reveal the identity of the American user and hides several digits of their phone number, allowing the CIA to comply with a ban on domestic spying, it said.
The agency could choose to refer a hidden number to the FBI, which could then issue a subpoena demanding AT&T divulge the information, according to the report.
An AT&T spokesman did not confirm or deny the program but said the firm acted in accordance with laws in the United States and in foreign countries.
“In all cases, whenever any governmental entity anywhere seeks information from us, we ensure that the request and our response are completely lawful and proper,” spokesman Mark Siegel said. But he added, “We do not comment on questions concerning national security.”
Without verifying the existence of the program, the CIA said its intelligence-gathering does not violate the privacy of Americans. “The CIA protects the nation and upholds the privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with U.S. laws,” said spokesman Todd Ebitz.
The agency is usually associated with gathering-intelligence through spies in the field, while the NSA focuses on eavesdropping abroad and code-breaking. But an unnamed intelligence official told the Times that the CIA sometimes needs to check phone records in “time-sensitive situations” and be able to act with speed and agility.
The report offered the first indication that the CIA had a role in electronic data collection since leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparked a global firestorm around the NSA’s digital spying.
U.S. Internet communications firms have voiced complaints that they are legally required to cooperate with the NSA’s “data mining.” Industry advocates have expressed concerns that NSA spying revelations could turn consumers in the U.S. and abroad against American technology companies.