The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T – Steve Coll

at&tAnyone who uses a mobile cellular device has undoubtedly experienced the issue of a dropped call. Upon resumption of the call, one party will typically ask the other who their service provider is. The choices of mobile service providers today are plenty but prior to 1982, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company controlled phone service across America (“AT&T”). But all that changed when a small communications company challenged AT&T’s rule and set int motion a chain of events that resulted in the breakup of the communications giant, paving the way for the diversity in service providers we have today. Author Steve Coll tells the unbelievable story here in a book that beautifully captures a crucial event in American history.

This book was in my list of recommendations, and when I noticed it the title instantly grabbed my attention due to me being a mobile subscriber of AT&T, Inc. And when I think back to my childhood, my family were also subscribers of AT&T. None of us questioned why but would agree today that we never had issues with phone service. But if AT&T was so good, why was it broken up? Well, a small company called MCI Communications (“MCI”) decided that it wanted to get into the communications field and had no choice but to impose on AT&T’s territory. The tech giant balked at first, but officials at the Federal Communications Commission had other ideas and approved MCI’s request to go into business. But there was a catch, and as Coll explains:

“When the FCC authorized MCI to go into business, over the strenuous objections of AT&T’s Washington lobbyists, the commission told AT&T that it had to allow MCI to interconnect with the basic phone network. But the commission didn’t tell AT&T how much it should charge MCI for connections, or how fast AT&T should install MCI’s lines, or how AT&T should calculate its own costs when determining an interconnection price for MCI.” 

The leasing agreement worked on the surface, but MCI’s William G. McGowan (1927-1992) was far from finished and on March 6, 1974, MCI filed an anti-trust suit against AT&T. Several years later in 1978, the two parties entered the ENFIA Agreement about the leased lines, but the lawsuit had also provided the framework needed by the U.S. Department of Justice in its own lawsuit to end AT&T’s dominance. But the tech giant did not go away quietly and had the best lawyers it could afford. And they were ready for battle when the Government filed suit in what became United States v. American Tel. and Tel. Co., 552 F. Supp. 131 (D.D.C. 1983). The first judge assigned to the case passes away and it is re-assigned to the late Judge Harold H. Greene (1923-2000) whose summary judgment opinion changed telecommunications in the United States. But before we reach that point, the author provides a crash course of litigation and discovery that those in the legal field will appreciate. The snippets of courtroom discussions and conversations revisited between the parties reveal the complexities litigators face in intricate litigation. And behind the scenes on each side, things were unpredictable as well. One area that stands out is the confusion at the U.S. Department of Justice. Before the case is over, several attorneys take the lead, each with a distinctive style. And at times, it seems as if no one on the Government’s side is on the same page, particularly when the parties begin settlement negotiations. However, while the two sides were revisiting strategy, politics in America were changing the course of nation and a former Hollywood star was soon on his way to the White House.

About halfway through the story, the narrative changes with the incoming administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). At first, I thought it was strange that his administration would play a role in the story but as the book progresses, the reasons behind the importance of the AT&T case become clear. One issue regarding national security gives credence to the Government’s intrusion. But strangely, Reagan never takes the lead in the matter, nor does he get involved but instead leaves the matter to others. Coll points out this characteristic of Reagan’s time in office with this keen observation:

“The advantage of Reagan’s style was that on many issues, that consensus led to unity and strong, positive leadership within the administration. The disadvantage was that the President had a slim grasp of the questions being deliberated by his counselors and was thus unable to intervene when, as was the case early that summer, debate on a particular issue became skewed by personality clashes, turf wars, and internal White House politics.” 

Frankly, Reagan is a non-factor throughout the story, but cabinet officials take far stronger positions. At the Justice Department, a settlement remains a priority, but the attorneys remain committed to trial and seeing the case through. The agreement reached with AT&T in 1956 was seen as a slap on wrist and attorneys were determined not to let it happen again. AT&T’s attorneys resort to filing a summary judgment motion but even as the two sides engaged motion practice, they all remained oblivious to decisions in Washington, one of which pulls the rug out from under your feet:

“Neither Greene nor the majority of attorneys trying the case was aware on that September morning that a nearly irrevocable decision not to drop U.S. v. AT&T had already been made by the White House.” 

The White House had left AT&T to defend itself and was not going to step in. But settlement negotiations proved to be successful, and the case was eventually dismissed. And that settlement awakened the sleeping giant known as Congress. Coll explains what happened when the settlement went through and how its terms shaped modern telecommunications. And surprisingly MCI suffered an adverse effect from legislation that should have been to its benefit. Today, the matter of U.S. v. AT&T is history rarely discussed. But the decision of Judge Greene, the settlement reached and the actions by Congress, changed the telecommunications industry for good. The United States Government has commenced anti-trust litigation countless times and will surely use it in the future. But the breakup of AT&T will remain one of its most important cases. Highly recommended.

ASIN:‎ B071D53HV8

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Ghost WarsOn the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.   As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability.  America had been attacked.  When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief.  The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado.  Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia.  Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed.  To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”.  Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public.  There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics.  The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized.  But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.

If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer.  Washington has no official position on it.   But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent.   Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift.   The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989.  The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.   The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States.  The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.  Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows.  And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.

The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious.  But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007).   All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow.  The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others.  The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office.  The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life.  Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.

Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death.   Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself.  But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm.  He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear.  Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering.  However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America.  That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.

Undoubtedly,  each reader will take something different away from the book.  But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief.   Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance?  Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community?   Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many.   For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.

ISBN-10: 0143034669
ISBN-13: 978-0143034667