FCC Takes a Pass on NSA Privacy Probe

Citing national security concerns, the FCC rejects a request for investigation of telecoms' cooperation with the NSA.

The Federal Communications Commission will not pursue an investigation of telecoms cooperation with the National Security Agencys wiretapping activities. According to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, in Washington, such a probe would "pose an unnecessary risk of damage to national security."

AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth have been singled out in a number of accounts as having provided the NSA with access to millions of customers telephone and Internet records without the customers knowledge or consent. The Bush administration has admitted the program existed, but has been vague about details.

In a Sept. 12 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) asked Martin to open an investigation into possible telecommunications privacy laws violations by the NSA and the nations telecoms. Martin, in turn, referred Markeys letter to McConnell.

"The United States generally does not confirm or deny allegations about intelligence activities," McConnell wrote to Martin on Oct. 2. "That is because such disclosures could reveal information about intelligence sources, methods and capabilities, and in turn cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."

Markey said in an Oct. 5 statement he was disappointed by Martins response and contended that it is within the FCCs authority to investigate violations of federal privacy laws.

"I believe the agency could conduct its own examination of such reports in a way that safeguards national security," Markey said. "But the real roadblock here continues to be the Bush administration. The letter to the FCC from the Director of National Intelligence is unsurprising given that this administration has continually thwarted efforts by Congress to shed more light on the surveillance program."

In a related action involving the controversy, the Electric Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco, announced on Oct. 5 it had hired two veteran Washington lobbyists to try to block amnesty for telecoms collaborating with the NSAs warrantless spying activities. The EFF is lead counsel in Hepting v. AT&T, one of many lawsuits aiming to hold telecommunications companies accountable for allegedly violating their customers privacy rights.

"While EFF generally does not engage in Washington-style lobbying, we need to make Congress understand the importance of letting our case against AT&T go forward," EFF Executive Director Shari Steele said in a statement. "By releasing the telecoms from liability, Congress would be permitting the widespread flouting of our laws by private companies entrusted with our most personal communications."


Click here to read about a controversy surrounding major telecoms censorship policies.

On Sept. 27, the EFF filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, demanding any records of a telecom industry lobbying campaign to block lawsuits over their compliance with illegal electronic surveillance.

"The White House is publicly calling for immunity for the telecoms, while a recent Newsweek article detailed a secretive lobbying campaign to block the lawsuits," Marcia Hofmann, an EFF attorney, said in a statement. "If there are back room deals going on at the Department of Justice, then Americans need to know about them now, before Congress passes any law that gets the telecom companies off the hook."


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