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Wednesday, March 22, 2023



A Trail of Evidence Leading to AT&T’s Partnership with the NSA


Pep Montserrat, special to ProPublica

A Trail of Evidence Leading to AT&T’s Partnership with the NSA

Documents provided by Edward Snowden mention a special relationship between the National Security Agency and an unnamed telecommunications company. Here’s how we figured out that’s AT&T.

Today we reported that the National Security Agency’s ability to capture Internet traffic on United States soil has relied on its extraordinary, decadeslong partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.

While it has long been known that American telecommunications companies work closely with the spy agency, the documents we’ve published show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative” and another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”

By following breadcrumbs we found throughout the trove of documents released by Snowden, we were able to prove that a program called Fairview was the cover term for the agency’s partnership with AT&T. We also found evidence that Verizon participates in the agency’s smaller Stormbrew program.

Fairview Defined

We started with the basics. A slide deck called “Fairview Overview” described the partnership between NSA’s Special Source Operations unit and a corporate partner:

We inferred from this that the Fairview partner was a single big U.S. telecom. There are only a handful American operators at this scale: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and Internet backbone providers such as CenturyLink, Cogent Communications and Level 3 Communications.

The Cable Cut

Our best clue came from an internal NSA newsletter, which contained an update about how data collection was restored after the Japanese earthquake of 2011:

On 5 Aug 2011, collection of DNR and DNI traffic at the FAIRVIEW CLIFFSIDE trans-pacific cable site resumed, after being down for approximately five months. Collection operations at CLIFFSIDE had been down since 11 March 2011, due to the cable damage as a result of the earthquake off of the coast of Japan.

Several submarine cables near Japan were damaged after the earthquake. However, only one of them was restored on August 5, 2011, according to Satoru Taira, vice president in the Crisis Management Planning Office at NTT Communications, the Japanese telecom that operates the Japan landing station for the cable. That restored cable is the northern leg of the Japan-US cable that is operated by AT&T in the United States, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.

Although there are many partners in the consortium that share ownership of the Japan-U.S. cable, AT&T is the primary network operator of the cable and owns the Manchester, California cable landing point for the U.S-Japan cable, according to FCC filings.

AT&T-Specific Jargon

Our next clue was some jargon we found in an NSA glossary.

Even the NSA has a hard time keeping track of all its code words, so it has a dictionary of terms. Inside that dictionary, we found an entry that described a Fairview program using terminology we hadn’t heard before: “SNRC.”

SAGURA - DNI access from FAIRVIEW’s Partner’s DNI backbone which includes OC-192 and 10GE peering circuits. The Partner has provided a current view of the forecasted and equipped 10GE and OC-192 peering circuits at the eight SNRCs as of March 2009.

A little sleuthing revealed a 1996 article in the publiction Network World in which AT&T described its Internet hubs as Service Node Routing Complexes, or SNRCs. Former AT&T employees Jennifer Rexford, who is now a professor at Princeton University, and Joel Gottlieb, who now runs his own consulting service, confirmed for us that SNRC was AT&T-specific jargon. We also found that AT&T had included the term SNRC in a glossary of technical terms it submitted with a government contract.

Elsewhere, in a diagram of Fairview data flows, the term Common Backbone, or CBB is used to describe the Fairview partner’s Internet backbone. The term CBB is also specific to AT&T, according to Rexford and Steven Bellovin, another former AT&T employee, now a professor at Columbia University.

A network map of Fairview shows eight “Peering Link Router Complexes” A 2009 AT&T network map shows eight “Backbone Node with Peering” at roughly those same locations.

UN Ring

In April 2012, an internal NSA newsletter boasted about a successful operation in which NSA spied on the United Nations headquarters in New York City with the help of its Fairview and Blarney programs. Blarney is a program that undertakes surveillance that is authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

FAIRVIEW and BLARNEY engineers collaborated to enable the delivery of 700Mbps of paired packet switched traffic (DNI) traffic from access to an OC192 ring serving the United Nations mission in New York … FAIRVIEW engineers and the partner worked to provide the correct mapping, and BLARNEY worked with the partner to correct data quality issues so the data could be handed off to BLARNEY engineers to enable processing of the DNI traffic.

We found historical records showing that AT&T was paid $1 million a year to operate the U.N.’s fiber optic provider in 2011 and 2012. A spokesman for the U.N. secretary general confirmed that the organization “has a current contract with AT&T” to operate the fiber optic network at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Cable Landing Stations

Internal NSA maps of Fairview’s backbone network show the partner company’s nine cable landing stations on the East and West coasts of the United States. Those positions correspond to cable landing stations owned by AT&T, documented by the company in regulatory filings to the FCC

The internal NSA slide below shows the locations of Fairview’s cable stations and other program locations. The map shows AT&T stations where submarine cables enter the United States.

“Company A”

A 2009 working draft of an NSA inspector general report about President Bush’s Stellar Wind warrantless wiretapping program, which was previously released by The Guardian, referred to the helpful cooperation of two companies — Company A and Company B, which provided “two of the most productive SIGINT collaborations that the NSA has with the private sector.”

Company A was described as having “access to 39% of international calls into and out of the United States” while Company B had access to 28 percent of international calls. At the time, AT&T had 39 percent and MCI had 28 percent of the international message telephone traffic, according to a 1999 FCC report.

Stormbrew Includes Verizon

We were also curious about the NSA’s next-biggest corporate partnership after Fairview, described in the documents as Stormbrew.

We found a 2013 presentation in the documents that showed a map of a Stormbrew submarine cable connecting the West Coast of the United States to five Asian cities: Chongming and Qingdao in China, Keoje and Shin-Maruyama in Japan, and Tanshui in Taiwan. Those landing points match exactly with the landing points of the Trans-Pacific Express submarine cable that is operated by Verizon.

In an internal NSA newsletter, we found a reference to the construction of the Stormbrew cable landing station:

Stormbrew has completed SCIF construction and also received security certification for BRECKENRIDGE, its latest collection site on 11 September 2009. The 10,000 square foot facility is equipped with the necessary power, communications and equipment racks to support the planned near-term deployment of 15 TURMOIL systems, providing 150G of processing against the newly acquired ••••••••••••••••.

Initial collection system deployments are scheduled for 2nd quarter 2010. The BRECKENRIDGE/••••••• effort commenced in February 2007 and is the first “cable-head” collection effort conducted under STORMBREW.

The date that the effort started — February 2007— is also when Verizon filed its initial request for “a license to construct, land and operate the TPE cable,” according to FCC filings.

author photo

Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica. From 2000 to 2013, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2011 and won a Gerald Loeb Award in 2010.

author photo

Jeff Larson is the Data Editor at ProPublica. He is a winner of the Livingston Award for the 2011 series Redistricting: How Powerful Interests are Drawing You Out of a Vote. Jeff’s public key can be found here.

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NSA Spying Relies on AT&T’s ‘Extreme Willingness to Help’


Pep Montserrat, special to ProPublica

NSA Spying Relies on AT&T’s ‘Extreme Willingness to Help’

The National Security Agency’s ability to capture Internet traffic on United States soil has been based on an extraordinary, decadeslong partnership with a single company: AT&T.

The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.

While it has been long known that American telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, newly disclosed NSA documents show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”

AT&T’s cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the NSA access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

The NSA’s top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership was more than twice that of the next-largest such program, according to the documents. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than its similarly sized competitor, Verizon. And its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.

One document reminds NSA officials to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities, noting: “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”

The documents, provided by the former agency contractor Edward Snowden, were jointly reviewed by The New York Times and ProPublica. The NSA, AT&T and Verizon declined to discuss the findings from the files. “We don’t comment on matters of national security,” an AT&T spokesman said.

It is not clear if the programs still operate in the same way today. Since the Snowden revelations set off a global debate over surveillance two years ago, some Silicon Valley technology companies have expressed anger at what they characterize as NSA intrusions and have rolled out new encryption to thwart them. The telecommunications companies have been quieter, though Verizon unsuccessfully challenged a court order for bulk phone records in 2014.

At the same time, the government has been fighting in court to keep the identities of its telecom partners hidden. In a recent case, a group of AT&T customers claimed that the NSA’s tapping of the Internet violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. This year, a federal judge dismissed key portions of the lawsuit after the Obama administration argued that public discussion of its telecom surveillance efforts would reveal state secrets, damaging national security.

The Secretariat building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. (David Sleight/ProPublica)

The NSA documents do not identify AT&T or other companies by name. Instead, they refer to corporate partnerships run by the agency’s Special Source Operations division using code names. The division is responsible for more than 80 percent of the information the NSA collects, one document states.

Fairview is one of its oldest programs. It began in 1985, the year after antitrust regulators broke up the Ma Bell telephone monopoly and its long-distance division became AT&T Communications. An analysis of the Fairview documents by The Times and ProPublica reveals a constellation of evidence that points to AT&T as that program’s partner. Several former intelligence officials confirmed that finding.

A Fairview fiber-optic cable, damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, was repaired on the same date as a Japanese-American cable operated by AT&T. Fairview documents use technical jargon specific to AT&T. And in 2012, the Fairview program carried out the court order for surveillance on the Internet line, which AT&T provides, serving the United Nations headquarters. (NSA spying on United Nations diplomats has previously been reported, but not the court order or AT&T’s involvement. In October 2013, the United States told the United Nations that it would not monitor its communications.)

The documents also show that another program, code-named Stormbrew, has included Verizon and the former MCI, which Verizon purchased in 2006. One describes a Stormbrew cable landing that is identifiable as one that Verizon operates. Another names a contact person whose LinkedIn profile says he is a longtime Verizon employee with a top-secret clearance.

AT&T’s cable station in Point Arena, California. NSA collection at this site was temporarily disrupted after the 2011 Japanese earthquake damaged the undersea cable. (Henrik Moltke for ProPublica)

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, AT&T and MCI were instrumental in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping programs, according to a draft report by the NSA’s inspector general. The report, disclosed by Snowden and previously published by The Guardian, does not identify the companies by name but describes their market share in numbers that correspond to those two businesses, according to Federal Communications Commission reports.

AT&T began turning over emails and phone calls “within days” after the warrantless surveillance began in October 2001, the report indicated. By contrast, the other company did not start until February 2002, the draft report said.

In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Stormbrew was still gearing up to use the new technology, which appeared to process foreign-to-foreign traffic separate from the post-9/11 program..

In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the NSA after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the tenth anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.

That year, one slide presentation shows, the NSA spent $188.9 million on the Fairview program, twice the amount spent on Stormbrew, its second-largest corporate program.

After The Times disclosed the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program in December 2005, plaintiffs began trying to sue AT&T and the NSA In a 2006 lawsuit, a retired AT&T technician named Mark Klein claimed that three years earlier he had seen a secret room in a company building in San Francisco where the NSA had installed equipment.

Klein claimed that AT&T was providing the NSA with access to Internet traffic that AT&T transmits for other telecom companies. Such cooperative arrangements, known in the industry as “peering,” mean that communications from customers of other companies could end up on AT&T’s network.

After Congress passed a 2008 law legalizing the Bush program and immunizing the telecom companies for their cooperation with it, that lawsuit was thrown out. But the newly disclosed documents show that AT&T has provided access to peering traffic from other companies’ networks.

AT&T’s “corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s,” or Internet service providers, one 2013 NSA document states.

Because of the way the Internet works, intercepting a targeted person’s email requires copying pieces of many other people’s emails, too, and sifting through those pieces. Plaintiffs have been trying without success to get courts to address whether copying and sifting pieces of all those emails violates the Fourth Amendment.

Many privacy advocates have suspected that AT&T was giving the NSA a copy of all Internet data to sift for itself. But one 2012 presentation says the spy agency does not “typically” have “direct access” to telecoms’ hubs. Instead, the telecoms have done the sifting and forwarded messages the government believes it may legally collect.

“Corporate sites are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to NSA,” according to the presentation. This system sometimes leads to “delays” when the government sends new instructions, it added.

The companies’ sorting of data has allowed the NSA to bring different surveillance powers to bear. Targeting someone on American soil requires a court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When a foreigner abroad is communicating with an American, that law permits the government to target that foreigner without a warrant. And when foreigners are messaging other foreigners, that law does not apply and the government can collect such emails in bulk without targeting anyone.

AT&T’s provision of foreign-to-foreign traffic has been particularly important to the NSA because large amounts of the world’s Internet communications travel across American cables. AT&T provided access to the contents of transiting email traffic for years before Verizon began doing so in March 2013, the documents show. They say AT&T gave the NSA access to “massive amounts of data,” and by 2013 the program was processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day.

Because domestic wiretapping laws do not cover foreign-to-foreign emails, the companies have provided them voluntarily, not in response to court orders, intelligence officials said. But it is not clear whether that remains the case after the post-Snowden upheavals.

“We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence,” Brad Burns, an AT&T spokesman, said. He declined to elaborate.

This story was co-published with The New York Times.

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Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica. From 2000 to 2013, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2011 and won a Gerald Loeb Award in 2010.

author photo

Jeff Larson is the Data Editor at ProPublica. He is a winner of the Livingston Award for the 2011 series Redistricting: How Powerful Interests are Drawing You Out of a Vote. Jeff’s public key can be found here.

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When Only 15% of Defendants Can Afford $500 Bail and More in Muckreads Weekly

Some of the best #MuckReads we read this week. Want to receive these by email?  Sign up to get this briefing delivered to your inbox every weekend.


Indefensible: The story of New Orleans' public defenders (BuzzFeed News)

"'You've got a $135 million police force, an $80 million jail, a $6 million court system, and a $15 million DA's office,' Orleans Parish's chief public defender said. 'All those are designed to put people in jail. That is what is designed to catch you and incapacitate you. There is $6 million to make sure your rights aren't violated, justice is done, and you get the right person. That is an incredible disparity.'"

How killing elephants finances terror in Africa (National Geographic)

"But in central Africa, as I learned firsthand, something more sinister is driving the killing: Militias and terrorist groups funded in part by ivory are poaching elephants, often outside their home countries, and even hiding inside national parks. They're looting communities, enslaving people, and killing park rangers who get in their way."

Mothers of ISIS: Their children abandoned them to join the worst terror organization on earth (The Huffington Post)

"Since the Syrian civil war began four years ago, some 20,000 foreign nationals have made their way to Syria and Iraq to fight for various radical Islamist factions. Over 3,000 are from Western countries. While some go with their families' blessing, most leave in secret, taking all sense of normalcy with them. … Over the last year, dozens of these mothers from around the world have found each other, weaving a strange alliance from their loss."

The bail trap (The New York Times Magazine)

"In New York City, where courts use bail far less than in many jurisdictions, roughly 45,000 people are jailed each year simply because they can't pay their court-assigned bail. And while the city's courts set bail much lower than the national average, only one in 10 defendants is able to pay it at arraignment. To put a finer point on it: Even when bail is set comparatively low — at $500 or less, as it is in one-third of nonfelony cases — only 15 percent of defendants are able to come up with the money to avoid jail."

The Teflon toxin: DuPont and the chemistry of deception (The Intercept)

"As with tobacco, public health organizations have taken up the cause — and numerous reporters have dived into the mammoth story. Like the tobacco litigation, the lawsuits around C8 also involve huge amounts of money. And, like tobacco, C8 is a symbol of how difficult it is to hold companies responsible, even when mounting scientific evidence links their products to cancer and other diseases."

Anatomy of a calamity: How the VA's Aurora hospital project spiraled out of control (The Denver Post)

"...there is no agreement on fully funding the new medical campus, which the VA admitted in March could cost a stunning $1.73 billion. The design includes features such as a curved lobby spanning two city blocks, 43 elevators and a vivarium for animal experiments. The cost is five times an initial $328 million estimate and nearly three times the $604 million construction target."

Insurance Lobby That Fought Hillarycare and Obamacare Now Has Sturdy Bridges to Democrats

This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.

When the former head of the U.S. government’s health insurance programs was hired in July to run a lobby that had spent tens of millions of dollars trying to derail Obamacare, it was more than just another spin of Washington’s revolving door.

Marilyn Tavenner, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, became chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main lobbying group, which is known as AHIP. As the latest of a half-dozen prominent architects and overseers of Obamacare to move into the health industry, her move signified growing ties between health insurers and Democrats despite battles over the Affordable Care Act.

The relationship has long been marked by ambivalence and tension. Tavenner’s predecessor at AHIP, Karen Ignagni, was a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, but the insurance lobby led the way in defeating the Clinton health coverage plan in 1993 and secretly spent about $100 million to attack Obamacare even as it negotiated to make it palatable to the industry. More recently, as the law added millions to the insurance rolls and generated big profits for many companies, they have turned to defending it.

The connections may continue or strengthen if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and the presidency. That’s because a Washington firm called the Dewey Square Group, which is closely identified with the Clinton campaign, was at the center of the industry’s efforts to win influence among Democrats — at a time when the two sides were sharply opposed.

As it helps corporations play both sides of the street, Dewey Square stands as a primary example of an ascendant breed in the Washington influence industry: Democratic consulting firms that, over time, have expanded from advising political campaigns into advising industry groups.

While these firms may do actual lobbying here and there, their main service is what’s known as “grass-tops organizing,” to help corporate clients win over Democratic constituencies. Others in the business, including Glover Park Group and SKDKnickerbocker, also lean Democratic. Their clients generally need less help reaching Republicans.

Among Dewey Square’s clients have been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hired the firm to fight for limits on damages that can be awarded in lawsuits — a longtime plank in the Republican platform — by invoking the plight of Hispanic restaurant owners taken to court; the National Restaurant Association, which paid Dewey Square $772,000 in 2009 as it was fighting legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers; and the Private Equity Growth Council, which paid it $188,544 in 2009. And in 2012, Dewey Square was hired by the advocacy campaign Fix the Debt, which pushed an austerity approach to budget deficits.

Dewey Square was founded in Boston in 1993 by Charlie Baker III, a longtime Michael Dukakis hand; Charles Campion, a former aide to Walter Mondale, and Michael Whouley, a legendary master of Election Day turnout tactics. (He is credited with helping Al Gore narrowly beat Bill Bradley in the 2000 New Hampshire primary by sending Gore, with his Secret Service motorcade, into strong Bradley areas on voting day to cause traffic jams.)

The firm was bought by British advertising giant WPP in 2006. It evolved from mostly consulting for candidates to advising other clients — nonprofit groups, companies and industry groups — on how to win political fights.

Among the more than 40 consultants at Dewey Square is Minyon Moore, the director of its multicultural and state and local practice, a former political aide in Bill Clinton’s White House who joined the firm in 2004. Moore is close with Hillary Clinton — in 2008, she asked a Washington businessman to fund a shadow pro-Clinton effort during the Democratic primaries in four states and Puerto Rico costing $608,750. Moore weathered that revelation, and it was she who organized the first meeting at Clinton’s Embassy Row home in 2013 to discuss what another run for president would entail.

Moore, Baker and Whouley were in the so-called working group that oversaw the Clinton campaign-in-waiting before her formal announcement. And Baker was hired as the campaign’s “chief administrative officer” — essentially, its liaison to the Democratic National Committee. If Clinton wins the nomination, Baker is expected to assume control of the party structure in 2016. Further affirming Dewey Square’s influence in Hillary-land is its alum Guy Cecil, who leads the main pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA.

None of the firm’s known projects was as directly opposed to the Democrats’ core agenda as its work on behalf of AHIP in 2007 and 2008.

When Democrats took control of Congress after their 2006 election sweep — a sweep in which Whouley played a key role in boosting turnout — one of their first agenda items was to expand health insurance for low-income children. To pay for it, they proposed reining in subsidies given to insurers who offered seniors coverage under Medicare Advantage, the privately run alternative to Medicare.

Medicare Advantage was created on the logic that it would increase choice and provide more efficient care. But by 2007, the plans were costing the government about $1,000 more per enrollee than traditional Medicare. Congressional budget analysts found that if the government cut payments to insurers to match those in the traditional system it could save $54 billion over five years.

That would be bad news for AHIP’s members, who were relying on Medicare Advantage for an increasing share of their profits. The insurance lobby, then led by Ignagni, turned to Dewey Square.

The firm already had offered AHIP its services as a conduit to Democratic lawmakers and activists, in particular African-American and Hispanic ones, according to a person involved in the discussions. The two came up with a shrewd argument against cuts to Medicare Advantage: Minorities were especially prone to chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Since Medicare Advantage plans purported to be superior at managing those problems, the subsidy cuts, and resulting benefit cuts, would hit minorities especially hard. (In fact, enrollment levels were no higher among minorities than white retirees.)

It was an all-out effort, as described by the Wall Street Journal in 2007. Dewey Square held a briefing for black and Latino lawmakers, with the invitations sent out by a Dewey Square principal who used to be executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. There, the lawmakers heard a pitch for Medicare Advantage from Aetna CEO Ronald Williams, who is African-American.

The message seemed to register with several Democratic House members, including Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, from Cleveland, who spoke up against the cuts at a House hearing, saying, “It’s a program where a significant number of minority seniors have decided to place themselves.” (Among the black lawmakers who weren’t persuaded was Sen. Barack Obama.)

AHIP unveiled an advisory committee on the issue that included three dozen black, Latino and Asian-American leaders, including the former mayors of Denver and Miami. Dewey Square coaxed letters to Congress opposing the Medicare Advantage cuts out of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The firm even flew in from Orlando an 81-year-old Hispanic woman in a wheelchair who had had five heart attacks and three strokes to testify against the cuts, saying that her Medicare Advantage plan paid for a foot doctor to come to her house to clip her toenails to avoid diabetes complications. “It was a creative way to look at the issue that I don’t think had been examined before — and it did catch folks’ attention on the Hill,” said Dan Elling, who was a Republican health-policy staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee at the time.

Congressional Democrats ended up implementing some cuts to Medicare Advantage in 2008, over President Bush’s veto. But the fight arose again the next year, with higher stakes, when Obama and congressional Democrats launched their push for the Affordable Care Act, which called for additional cuts to Medicare Advantage to help pay for near-universal health coverage.

This time, AHIP’s campaign included getting seniors to send letters to their local newspapers opposing the cuts — a tactic that backfired when an editor at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, in Massachusetts, discovered that some of the people whose names were attached to the letters had no recollection of writing them. He got even more suspicious when he found that a young man who had called to make sure the letters were published was an intern at the Dewey Square Group.

The AHIP campaign didn’t keep Congress from including more Medicare Advantage cuts in the final legislation. “I knew they were out hustling lobbyists to work the crowd, as it were, but it didn’t seem to make any difference to us,” said Pete Stark, a California Democrat who chaired the health subcommittee on Ways and Means prior to losing his seat in 2012.

But AHIP did ultimately win important concessions. The industry limited the impact of cuts by getting the Obama administration to expand a demonstration project rewarding high-quality insurers with higher payments.

With insurers under less pressure to raise the plans’ costs to enrollees or reduce their benefits, the big exodus from Medicare Advantage that AHIP had warned about never happened. In fact, enrollment has surged to nearly 17 million beneficiaries, more than a third of all Medicare enrollees.

Ginny Terzano, a spokeswoman for Dewey Square, said it stopped working with AHIP in 2008.

“The firm tends to work with businesses and organizations that are like-minded in our policy views and values," she said. "If it becomes clear that a policy position is not in line with our thinking, we either won’t take the work or we will step away from the work.”

She declined to comment on how the firm's work for AHIP reflects on Clinton given the firm's prominence in her campaign: "If you’re looking at the Clinton campaign and what they think, I refer you to the Clinton campaign.”

A Clinton campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

With Obamacare, the next occupant of the White House will preside over a continual tweaking of health-care rules and payments that will have more consequence for the insurance industry than ever. Congress and the next administration will also be facing the big decision of whether to retain an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans, which is supposed to go into effect in 2017. AHIP is already lobbying to repeal it.

Richard Kirsch, the former director of Health Care for America Now, which lobbied for universal coverage, said he isn’t kept awake nights by Dewey Square’s connections to the insurance lobby. Just because the firm was doing the industry’s bidding when it was being paid doesn’t mean its principals would take up the industry’s cause if they ended up in a Hillary Clinton administration, he said.

Kirsch said he and other policy advocates are more worried about Obama officials like Tavenner, the former Medicare and Medicaid chief, who have moved into the industry.

Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for the insurance lobby, said the hiring of an Obama official as chief executive doesn’t reflect a change in the group’s strategy. “This isn’t a shift or an evolution,” she said. “How you move forward in a way that creates and delivers affordable choice for consumers has always been our focus.”

To Kirsch, though, Tavenner’s connections raise the prospect of unfair influence even though government ethics rules forbid her from directly lobbying the administration over the next two years.

“It’s a huge conflict and a great example of revolving door,” Kirsch said.

Related stories: For more coverage of politics and lobbying, read ProPublica’s reporting on Hollywood’s gift to U.S. embassies, how the gas tax explains Washington gridlock and the impact of Scott Walker’s legal victory.