WICHITA, Kansas -- Soon after the September 11 attacks in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush issued an executive order authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct surveillance of certain telephone calls without obtaining a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) as stipulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
FISA prohibits any person or agency from illegally intercepting, disclosing, using or divulging phone calls or electronic communications, whether they are operating under the appearance of an official act or not.
The scope of Bush's executive order remains unknown today, but one thing is certain: the collection of electronic consumer information for domestic spying programs would not have been possible without the cooperation of telecommunications providers. In 2006, investigators discovered that AT&T, BellSouth (now part of AT&T) and Verizon had been providing the NSA with access to customer phone records for months without the customers' knowledge or consent.
Despite a series of law suits, recent court rulings seem to prophesy immunity for both AT&T and Verizon. And while the protection of certain lobbyists and congress members may help the telecom giants escape prosecution, it can't keep the levee against public outrage standing forever. So AT&T took steps to proffer a scapegoat to the public last month, temporarily diverting attention from its executive officers.
Campbell Webb, an unassuming and soft-spoken lineman for AT&T, was arrested in January for illegal wiretapping. He was arraigned today in court, with AT&T attorneys supplying evidence to the prosecution. Interestingly, Webb didn't deny the allegations of wiretapping, but his testimony painted the portrait of a lonely eavesdropper more than a criminal mastermind.
Webb doesn't even own a computer, making the case against him -- that he pilfered millions of phone and email records -- a hard sell to the jury.
"I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road," Webb began as he took the witness stand this morning. He explained his job as "searching in the sun for another overload" to prevent problems with the lines that typically develop during the winter months. "If it snows, that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain," he continued.
Prosecutors were relentless, grilling Webb for hours about listening in on the wires as he worked.
"We've documented multiple occasions when you took liberties and broke into private conversations," said Miles Tarpfit, the lead prosecutor in the case against Webb. "You have clearly broken federal law here, Mr. Webb. These were private U.S. citizens, not terrorists."
But the counsel for the defense effectively demonstrated that the only phone line Webb tapped was that of a single mother in rural Kansas. "Clearly, Mr. Webb is guilty of nothing more than being lonely. Is it so hard to believe that someone who spends most of his life on the road wouldn't be? He's not gathering intelligence for the NSA. He's not selling data. If he gets any kind of reprimand from this jury, it should be a slap on the wrist for a single instance of voyeurism. Maybe if AT&T didn't require their workers to slave away in the middle of nowhere for months at a time, pulling 14-hour shifts in most cases, this wouldn't be a problem. He's not a spy, he's a one-time Peeping Tom. And I think even that's too harsh a judgment on his character."
Webb testified that his eavesdropping was the result of boredom, the frustration of a difficult divorce last year and being overworked.
He told the court that he first noticed the woman's voice while attempting to correct a problem with static. He described the voice coming "though the whine" as a "singing through the wire." Webb then admitted that he stayed on the line longer than he should have.
"I stayed on the line, just listening to her," Webb told the court in an emotional appeal. "I knowed [sic] it was wrong, but she had an angel's voice. She was talking to her friend about all the guys that done her and her little boy wrong. I could relate. I wanted to take her away from all that. It was just a fantasy, though, born out of my own pain. The whole time, I kept thinking, 'I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.' Could've been anyone, you see? I'm just a very sad man these days, trying to make ends meet and find some sense in living."
The woman whose line Webb tapped appeared in court for the defense, having refused to press any charges herself. "I know what it's like to work your fingers to the bone for nothing. Campbell Webb ain't committed no crime against me."
"I know I need a small vacation, but it don't look like rain," Webb concluded. He then offered a direct apology to the woman.
Tarpfit responded by telling Webb that he would have a five-year vacation in prison to look forward to if found guilty, which caused jurors to react with visible disgust. A verdict is pending.