May 17, 2006 6:08 AM PDT
Telecoms deny illegally handing over call records
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Two of the nation's largest phone companies deny that they improperly handed over their customers' domestic calling records to the National Security Agency.
BellSouth and Verizon Communications said earlier this week that they were not approached by the NSA and asked to hand over records to the government.
Verizon said Tuesday said that it was "not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide, customer phone records." It went on to say that "none of Verizon's businesses--wireless or wireline--provided customer records or call data."
The company nonetheless would not confirm nor deny whether it has had a relationship with the government's secret program to track terrorists in the U.S. In addition, Verizon referred in its statement only to businesses it owned until four months ago, but excluded MCI, which it bought in January. Verizon would not say why MCI had been excluded.
Asked by Reuters news service if the NSA had access to Verizon or MCI call records even if they were not handed over to the agency, spokesman Bob Varettoni declined to comment beyond the company's statement.
AT&T has not confirmed or denied it was approached by the NSA. The company said in a statement that it "does not allow wiretapping without a court order nor has it otherwise given customer information to law enforcement authorities or government agencies without legal authorization."
On Monday, BellSouth said it had conducted an internal review and confirmed that it had "not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA."
Joseph Nacchio, the former CEO of Qwest Communications International who is now facing 42 counts of illegal insider trading, said last week the NSA had approached Qwest in 2001 with a request to access private phone records. But according to a statement issued by Nacchio's attorney, Qwest refused to hand over any records because the NSA didn't have a warrant. Qwest, the fourth of the so-called Baby Bell phone companies, has declined to comment on the NSA issue.
The phone companies have come under fire recently after an article published in USA Today said AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon have handed over millions of phone records to the NSA to help identify and thwart terrorist groups working in the U.S. BellSouth on Thursday demanded a retraction.
President Bush last week acknowledged he had authorized the highly classified NSA program, which involved tracking the communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives in the U.S. But the exact relationship between the NSA and the phone companies is still murky at best.
Several lawsuits have been filed in federal court accusing the phone companies of violating the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and several federal laws including the Telecommunications Act. On Friday, Verizon was named in a federal lawsuit filed in New York. AT&T and BellSouth have now been added to the suit.
In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates privacy rights on the Internet, filed suit against AT&T in a federal district court in San Francisco for also allegedly handing over customer data to the NSA.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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