The Beltway was abuzz Thursday with fallout from a USA Today report that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting phone data on millions of Americans since Sept. 11, 2001.
Citing anonymous sources, USA Today wrote that AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. all turned over their customers phone records to the NSA not long after the terrorist attacks. The paper noted that Qwest Communications International Inc. refused to give customer records to the NSA because of privacy and legal concerns.
Speaking on NPR’s “Here and Now” program, a “USA Today” editor explained the data gathering has involved the collection of domestic phone numbers called, and the frequency of calls, not warrantless eavesdropping. The NSA last year was sued, however, for warrantless wiretapping of international calls.
We are not commenting on the accuracy of the article, Bob Varettoni, a Verizon spokesman, told PHONE+. We do not comment on national security matters, we act in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.
AT&T gave a similar response.
AT&T has a long history of vigorously protecting customer privacy, said spokesman Walt Sharp. Our customers expect, deserve and receive nothing less than our fullest commitment to their privacy. We also have an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation. If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions. Beyond that, we dont comment on matters of national security.”
BellSouth did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
President Bush gave brief remarks on Thursday regarding the article. He said he did authorize the NSA to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. But, he said, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.
[T]he intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, Bush said, adding, the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.
Congressional members were furious over the matter.
During opening remarks Thursday morning, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, railed against the Bush administration.
The president concealed the NSA eavesdropping program when he reassured all Americans that when this administration talks about a wiretap, that requires a court-ordered search warrant, he said. We now know that he had been having the NSA engage in warrantless wiretaps Americans since October 2001. So while the administration has tried to reassure us about the NSA domestic spying activities by characterizing them in the most narrow and self-serving terms, as if they were merely listening to Osama bin Laden calling into the United States, I have had my doubts.
The Wall Street Journal quoted Leahy as saying, Somebody ought to tell the truth and answer questions. They haven’t. The press has done our work for us and we should be ashamed. Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents.
Bloomberg said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would demand the phone companies executives testify regarding the USA Today report, and that he would subpoena any who might refuse.
I am determined to get to the bottom of this, Bloomberg quoted Specter as saying.
AT&T stocks had not fluctuated during early afternoon trading on Thursday. BellSouth shares were trading slightly higher, up five cents from opening trading at $33.86, while Verizon stocks were down 35 cents at $31.99. Qwest shares also were lower, down 19 cents at $6.41.