A year before retiring, Klein says he was assigned to work in an Internet room in AT&T's Folsom Street facility that sat right above the SG3 Secure Room. The Internet Room had a cabinet, he recalls, that contained a powerful prismatic device.

That device — called a splitter — sliced through every data-rich Internet laser beam that traversed AT&T's servers, creating an exact duplicate.

"Each half carried the same information," Klein says. "Except that one went to its normal destination, and one went to the secret room. So basically, they were copying all the data that went across the Internet."

In 2006, Klein helped the EFF sue AT&T over the secret room. The suit was ultimately dismissed when the government invoked its "state secret" privilege, which would turn out to be a typical Catch-22-style defense: We can't show it to you, so you can't prove it's there. Battling the phone service-security complex meant fighting a series of paradoxes.

Unwavering in his crusade, Klein says he tried appealing to Sen. Dianne Feinstein — who chairs the Intelligence Committee. But she wouldn't grant him an audience. In 2008, Feinstein and then-Sen. Barack Obama helped Congress pass legislation that granted legal immunity to any phone service carrier that cooperates with NSA wiretapping programs. It wasn't until this month, when Feinstein realized that her own staff was being spied on, that the senator openly chastened the executive branch.

Still, the court battles slog on. By the time last week's two-hour hearing recessed, it seemed doubtful that Cohn would ever gather the evidence to bolster her clients' complaints. Judge White had offhandedly described Snowden and other whistleblowers as "treasonous," suggesting he didn't sympathize with EFF's political line.

But evidently, he wasn't persuaded by government lawyer Gilligan's argument, either. Issuing a tentative order from the bench, White said he's inclined to compel preservation of any phone record that could serve as evidence. He also extended a restraining order to prevent the government from purging phone records that are more than five years old. The two parties will continue debating over the next several weeks.

Meanwhile, more data will course through the routers and fiber-optic cables of AT&T and other service providers, providing the NSA with bigger oceans to paddle through. If the Folsom Street facility seems lifeless, rest assured that millions of conversations are happening within its walls.

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