Add to My Yahoo!

Verizon provided data to Feds 720 times without court order or determining its legality
Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday October 16, 2007
Print This  Email This

As Congress debates whether to shield phone and Internet companies from lawsuits alleging they mishandled customers' private records, Verizon, the nations second-largest telecommunications firm, said it has provided telephone and Internet records to federal investigators hundreds of times since 2005.

Verizon has provided data to federal authorities on an emergency basis without a court order -- and without determining the requests' legality -- 720 times between January 2005 and September of this year. The company's revelation came in a 13-page letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee released Monday.

Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-MI) and two other Democrats on the panel also requested information from AT&T, and Qwest Communications about those companies compliance with federal requests for customer data, but those companies responses were not as detailed as Verizon's.

"The responses from these telecommunication companies highlight the need for Congress to continue pressing the Bush administration for answers," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), one of the committee member requesting the information. "The water is as murky as ever on this issue and it's past time for the administration to come clean."

The letters were released as Congress continues its work updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates intelligence agencies' eavesdropping on Americans. A Senate proposal to be introduced this week is expected to grant immunity from civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution to telecom companies that assisted President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

Verizon said its ability to turn over customer information without a court order "on an emergency basis is critical to the public safety," and the company claimed its ability to do so is protected by various federal statutes. The company listed examples where its cooperation in an emergency helped authorities track down pedophiles, diffuse hostage situations and thwart a high school bomb plot; none of its specific examples appeared to involve terrorism investigations.

The Verizon letter also revealed that the FBI used National Security Letters to request a "two-generation community of interest" related to a particular subscriber, meaning a list of every person the target called and every person called by those people. Verizon says it does not keep such information.

Details surrounding the Bush administration's efforts to spy on Americans have been trickling out gradually since the scheme was revealed in December 2005 in the New York Times.

A separate congressional committee requested more information about precisely when the covert -- and possibly illegal -- surveillance began, after a former Qwest CEO alleged the National Security Agency approached him about a covert program nine months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. When Joe Nacchio refused to participate in the program, believing it to be illegal, he alleges the NSA retaliated by revoking expected lucrative contracts from Qwest.

Last year, USA Today reported that Qwest was the only telecom not to comply with government request to turn over massive amounts of telephone records for potential data-mining, although it remains unclear whether that program was the one discussed in February.

"It is crucial ... that Congress be fully informed of all the Administration's surveillance activities involving telecommunications companies, particularly in light of the Administration's request that retroactive immunity from liability be provided to these companies and Administration officials," House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) wrote to the Director of National Intelligence, requesting a full briefing on the programs.

Civil liberties advocates have fiercely lobbied against granting immunity to telecom companies, especially without knowing the full scope of the surveillance programs. The administration has refused to provide full details to Congress, citing state secrets and executive privilege.

"It's rare in these situations where there's agreement between the plaintiffs and the defendants -- that there are plenty of protections for telecommunications providers in the existing laws," Kurt Opsahl, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Washington Post. "It appears that we both agree that the court should be able to look at the full situation, despite the state-secrets privilege."