I'd wondered about Sprint since December, when The New York Times broke the story that George W. Bush had allowed spooks from the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on people without bothering to get the warrants required by federal law. I'd been obsessing about a single line in a story the Times ran on Christmas Day: "Current and former government officials say that the security agency, as part of its domestic surveillance program, has gained the cooperation of some of the country's biggest telecommunications companies...."
The nation's biggest telecommunications companies? Did our hometown telecom giant help out the president's G-men? Did Sprint cooperate in an effort that has weirded out not just Bush haters who are calling for impeachment but also big-time Republicans such as Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter?
I put in a call to Sprint's director of public affairs, Leigh Horner, who handles media inquiries about "legislative, regulatory and issues management" from the East Coast. Sprint's Web site goes on and on about how it handles its customers' sensitive information like, say, when it gives it to other companies but doesn't say much about government spies.
You never know, after all. You won't get in trouble because you're not a terrorist and you're not blabbing on your cell phone about anything illegal. Besides, you never discuss anything remotely damaging nasty gossip about your brother, agony over your finances, gripes about your boss that might just embarrass you if it fell into the wrong hands. You have nothing to hide, right?
Sprint's Leigh Horner apparently had something to hide. Just after the first of the year, I left a message on her voice mail. I didn't hear anything, so I left a couple more messages. On January 12, I e-mailed my questions to her. I know the government spy program is all about top-secret information, and anything anyone says could compromise national security, but I figured Sprint's director of public affairs might at least give Kansas Citians the courtesy of some sort of reply.
Horner's silence continued. I began to fear the worst about Sprint. Then, as of last Monday, I didn't need Leigh Horner to confirm it anymore. USA Today reported that seven anonymous telecom execs from AT&T, MCI and Sprint said that the companies were cooperating with the feds.
According to USA Today's February 6 report, if U.S. intelligence officials complete a 48-point checklist indicating that there's a "reasonable basis" for suspecting that someone is a "terrorism-related target," then "technicians work with phone company officials to intercept communications pegged to a particular person or phone number. Telecommunications executives say MCI, AT&T and Sprint grant the access to their systems without warrants or court orders. Instead, they are cooperating on the basis of oral requests from senior government officials."
Agents have reportedly overheard communications from thousands of people.
So I headed to Westport to see how Sprint customers felt about it all. Of the five people I asked, no one knew that Sprint had played a major role in the president's controversial spyfest.
Two out of the five were bugged by this news. "I'm kind of bothered. It's kind of personal, you know? They don't have a right to give out that information," said Awa Ndiaye, who owns a jewelry and clothing shop in the City Market.
"I'm not really glad about that," said a guy named Al who works for General Motors. "We discussed this today in Bible study. With all the technology we have, there have to be other ways [to protect the country]." Theoretically, the feds might actually be aware of Al's phone habits, because he makes international calls (to a friend who's in the WNBA and sometimes plays overseas). Al said the news about Sprint made him think about changing phone companies.
But three out of the five said they didn't mind the spying.
"I think it's good for the safety of the country," said José Cruz.
Russ Schnieders, a salesman from Shawnee, said he wasn't too bent out of shape about it. He didn't think anybody would be listening to him. "I'd rather be safe than worry about them hearing me tell my wife I'm going to pick up a loaf of bread later."
You gotta admire a guy whose life is so placid that he doesn't have to worry about one damn thing he says on his cell phone. But do we really trust "senior government officials" to decide whether our conversations are harmless? Yeah, I know all about your loaf of bread, buddy. I'm going to pick one up later, too, man.
So I'm paranoid. But average folks have nothing to worry about. "It's fine with me. I think what he did was right," one woman said of the president's spy program. She didn't really like the idea of strangers listening in. "But I'm not a terrorist threat," she said. "I want to be protected."
When I ask for her name for publication, though, the woman freaked out. Apparently, she values her privacy.
The next day, I left one last message for Leigh Horner. This one was especially cranky. Leigh Horner didn't know it, but I was this close to publishing her cell phone number so you guys could give it a shot yourselves. That cell phone number isn't on Sprint's public list of media contacts, but I had obtained it anyway.
Then she called. "I'm sorry that I didn't get back to you, but I did want to let you know that we do not have any comment related to the NSA issue on any of the questions that you asked, and that has been consistent with all media inquiries across the board that we received, including the USA Today article. We did not comment on that, either."
No big surprise there. But since she was finally polite enough to at least respond, even though it took six weeks, I won't publish her cell phone number. Leigh Horner's privacy stays protected.
The rest of us? Maybe we aren't so lucky.