Dems Push Telecoms for NSA Disclosures

Lawmakers claim privacy rights are being lost in the focus on homeland security.

A group of U.S. House Democrats upped the pressure on Oct. 2 on the nations major telecom carriers to account for their alleged complicity in turning over unauthorized telephone and e-mail records to national intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and the FBI.

In letters sent to AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest, the lawmakers requested the telecoms provide Congress with a detailed account of their dealings with the NSA, including the installation of any equipment on their networks designed to intercept Internet traffic. Democratic Representatives John Dingell and Bart Stupak, both of Michigan, and Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts signed the letters.

"As reports about government intelligence agencies running roughshod over telecommunications privacy laws continue to surface, I have grown more and more concerned that the rights of consumers are being lost in shuffle," Markey said in a statement. "Protecting the homeland is vital, but such efforts should not undermine the essential privacy rights of American citizens."

AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth have all been singled out in a number of accounts as providing the NSA with access to millions of customers telephone records without the customers knowledge or consent. Allegedly, Qwest was also approached by the NSA but refused to cooperate. The Bush administration has admitted the program existed, but has been vague on other details.


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Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI may use what is known as National Security Letters to obtain—without judicial review—the records of businesses, including telephone companies and Internet service providers. In a March report, the Department of Justices Inspector General found the FBI improperly obtained the telephone records and subscriber information from three telephone companies.

"Since the Bush administration has been unwilling to discuss adequately this situation, I hope these telecommunications companies will be more forthcoming about the circumstances in which they have disclosed consumer information," Markey said.

In a separate letter sent Sept. 12, Markey wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin urging him to launch an investigation into possible telecommunications privacy laws violations by the NSA and other entities. In March, Martin wrote then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the legality of the FCC investigating any privacy violations.

"Such an investigation would require the disclosure of classified information, and the United States has consistently opposed such disclosure in both litigation and administrative proceedings," Martin wrote to Gonzales on March 6. "However, out of an abundance of caution and in light of renewed requests…that the FCC commence an investigation, I ask you to confirm the United States view of the propriety of the FCC investigating these allegations."


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Gonzales never replied to the letter.

"The continued reports of government intelligence agencies circumventing privacy laws make it clear that the FCC should not wait any longer to initiate an investigation," Markey said. "The FCC, as an independent agency, has a duty to help get to the bottom of what has transpired between the Bush administration and our nations major telephone companies."


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