Did NSA collect emails, texts leading up to 2002 Olympics?

Posted at 9:14 PM, Aug 21, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-21 23:14:32-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A newspaper report Wednesday claimed the National Security Agency intercepted and monitored all emails and text communications in the Salt Lake City area leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The Wall Street Journal reported the NSA and FBI worked with Qwest Communications "to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event." The newspaper said all emails and text communications were part of the domestic surveillance expansion after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Journal cited current and former NSA officials who said the agency had built a system capable of reaching 75 percent of Internet traffic in the United States.

In Utah, where the 2002 Winter Olympics were hosted and the NSA is building a massive data storage facility, reaction to the news was mixed.

"I think it's a vast overreach of law enforcement into the lives of ordinary and innocent people," said John Mejia, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

First District Congressman Rob Bishop told FOX 13 News the report of surveillance in Salt Lake City "bothers me significantly" and said he wanted to review it.

"I want to look at this one more time," Bishop said. "This bothers me. Seriously."

But Utah Senator Orrin Hatch defended the NSA and FBI's activities leading up to the Olympics.

"Remember, we were very concerned about terrorism and terrorist activities at that time," he told FOX 13 News. "I want people to know that these people at NSA are doing absolutely critical work for our country and had they not been doing it, we might well have had some more terrorist incidents like 9/11."

A spokesman for CenturyLink, which acquired Qwest Communications nine years ago, said it had no information on the claims in the Journal report.

In a statement to FOX News Channel, the NSA said:

NSA's signals intelligence mission is centered on defeating foreign adversaries who aim to harm the country. We defend the United States from such threats while fiercely working to protect the privacy rights of U.S. persons. It's not either/or. It's both.

The ACLU, which has filed lawsuits and information requests over data collection and domestic surveillance in recent months, said it worried that any information gathered that did not involve terrorism may still be in the hands of the NSA. Mejia pointed to the NSA's massive data facility being built in Bluffdale.

"They are now sitting in our backyard -- literally," he said.

The NSA data center, built to house massive amounts of information gathered by the agency, is rumored to be opening sometime within the next couple of months.

The Libertarian think tank Libertas Institute demanded more oversight of the NSA in light of the latest reports of data collection.

"Utah politicians were clamoring for the data center to come here. They were very eager for the job creation this would produce," said Libertas Institute president Connor Boyack. "Look at the legacy, look at the next few decades of the landmark facility we're going to have in our backyard. And now we know a decade ago, Salt Lake City residents were being cataloged and targeted by the NSA."