They sometimes call national security the third rail of politics. Touch it and, politically, you're dead.
The cliché doesn't seem far off the mark after reading Mark Klein's new book, "Wiring up the Big Brother Machine ... and Fighting It." It's an account of his experiences as the whistleblower who exposed a secret room at a Folsom Street facility in San Francisco that was apparently used to monitor the Internet communications of ordinary Americans.
Klein, 64, was a retired AT&T communications technician in December 2005, when he read the New York Times story that blew the lid off the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Secretly authorized in 2002, the program lets the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) monitor telephone conversations and e-mail messages of people inside the U.S. in order to identify suspected terrorists. Klein knew right away that he had proof -- documents from his time at AT&T -- that could provide a snapshot of how the program was siphoning data off of the AT&T network in San Francisco.
Amazingly, however, nobody wanted to hear his story. In his book he talks about meetings with reporters and privacy groups that went nowhere until a fateful January 20, 2006, meeting with Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Bankston was preparing a lawsuit that he hoped would put a stop to the wiretap program, and Klein was just the kind of witness the EFF was looking for.
With the EFF on board, Klein was briefly a media celebrity -- the man who had the guts to expose the NSA's secret wiretapping program. In his book he provides the documents and the stories that illustrate how all of this transpired.
Klein has been politically active since the 1960s, when he protested the Vietnam war. "I came to view the government with great suspicion like a lot of people back then and I still do," he said in an interview he granted the IDG News service on Friday. "I guess that sort of laid the groundwork for my later experience, because I didn't trust the government to begin with."
Today he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Linda, and his two dogs. He self-published his book last week.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview.
IDG News Service: By some estimates there are 15 to 20 of these secret wiretapping rooms across the country. You're the only AT&T employee who has come forward and talked about them in detail. Why?
Mark Klein: Fear. First of all it was a scary time. It still is a scary time, but during the Bush years it was sort of a witch hunt atmosphere and people were afraid. People are afraid of losing their jobs, and it's a rule of thumb that if you become a whistleblower you'll probably lose your job. And if you have a security clearance, you not only lose your job, but you probably will be prosecuted by the government. The Bush administration made that very clear in statements they made over and over again: 'Anybody who reveals anything about our secret programs will be prosecuted and we are running investigations to find out who leaked this to the New York Times.' Well that puts a fear in people.
IDG: Have you heard from other AT&T employees who told you that they knew of these activities?