Phone Companies Defend Aiding Government
By: Wall Street Journal
By DIONNE SEARCEY and EVAN PEREZ
October 16, 2007
Telecommunications companies defended their cooperation with the government, offering in letters to members of Congress a rare, though indirect, justification for allegedly aiding intelligence surveillance programs without court orders.
In response to questions from a House committee’s members, the companies tried to counter the impression that any such assistance may have been illegal without the involvement of a court. AT&T Inc. said in its letter that such help has traditionally been regarded to be “in the public interest.”
Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, had sought the letters from AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. The companies said they couldn’t acknowledge any participation in intelligence programs because the Bush administration has declared such information to be a state secret. Qwest, in particular, issued a short letter declining to respond to questions and citing the administration’s orders.
While Verizon and AT&T declined to comment about possible activities connected to any National Security Agency surveillance program, they did cite numerous legal provisions explaining that they are permitted under federal and state laws and through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to assist the government in its law-enforcement and counterterrorism efforts.
Congress and the White House are currently negotiating a long-term revamping of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that controls the government’s wiretapping activities. A temporary fix was passed in the late summer and will expire in February. Democrats have proposed a bill that expands court supervision of wiretaps, a change opposed by the White House.
Democrats are also resisting White House demands for blanket legal immunity for telecommunications companies that aided a previous surveillance program run by the National Security Agency without court warrants. A House vote on the proposed FISA rewrite is set for tomorrow.
The company comments will likely fuel what is already a controversial topic. Rep. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said in a written statement that the responses convince him that the Bush administration must offer more information about the program to Congress.
‘Time to Come Clean’
“The water is as murky as ever on this issue, and it’s past time for the Administration to come clean,” Rep. Dingell said in his statement, issued yesterday.
The phone companies face lawsuits accusing them of assisting the NSA with surveillance of their customers. In its letter, AT&T said such lawsuits are “unfair,” regardless of whether AT&T actually participated in the program, because top-ranking U.S. officials believe the intelligence activities to be legal.
Also in its letter, AT&T states that courts and Congress traditionally have not held phone companies liable for responding to authorized requests for help from intelligence agencies if they believe in “good faith” that the request was lawful.
“It does not matter whether the attorney general’s judgment reflected in the certification is ultimately determined to have been right or wrong: As long as the carrier acted pursuant to such a certification, national policy forbids a lawsuit,” AT&T’s letter said.
Verizon’s letter cites “longstanding common-law principles” that “allow citizens to rely on the government’s judgment when it asks for assistance.”
Helped Solve Crimes
In its letter, Verizon outlines how it has helped solve crimes by providing information to government entities “on an emergency basis,” including using an Internet protocol address to identify a “child predator” who had abducted a 13-year-old girl and tied her to a bed.
The letter goes on to state that Verizon, along with MCI, which it has since acquired, in 2006 received 88,000 requests for customer information from law-enforcement officials. This year through September, the company has received 61,000 such requests.
The letter also says it has been asked to provide the government with subscribers’ names and addresses, call records and credit-card or bank-account numbers. The letter also said Verizon has been asked for a subscriber’s “calling circle,” or information about a network of calls a customer has made. But the letter said Verizon hasn’t provided that information because it doesn’t maintain those records.
Write to Dionne Searcey at email@example.com and Evan Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org
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