Telecom companies mum to surveillance questions

WASHINGTON -- Three telecommunications companies have refused to tell Congress whether they gave U.S. intelligence agencies access to Americans' phone and computer records without court orders, citing White House objections and national security.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell "formally invoked the state-secrets privilege to prevent AT&T; from either confirming or denying" any details about intelligence programs, AT&T; general counsel Wayne Watts wrote to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.


Qwest and Verizon also declined to answer, saying the federal government has prohibited them from providing information, discussing or referring to any classified intelligence activities.

"Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities," Watts wrote.


The White House would not comment on the matter Monday.

The letter from Verizon provided some detail on the kind of information the government is seeking.

Verizon has been regularly asked in subpoenas and national-security letters to identify a "calling circle" for certain telephone numbers and to provide related subscriber information.

The company has never complied with such a request because it does not maintain calling-circle records, according to Verizon general counsel Randal Milch.

The House is about to consider a new government eavesdropping bill. The White House has threatened to veto the bill unless it includes retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies that assisted government investigations without court orders.

The Bush administration has said the companies cooperated in good faith because of their patriotism and desire to protect the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and should not be punished.

However, last week a Colorado court unsealed documents in the case of former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, who was convicted of insider trading in April. Nacchio, who is appealing his conviction, maintains the National Security Agency asked Qwest to allow it to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order in February 2001, six months before Sept. 11.

On Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., asked the Justice Department and McConnell for a full briefing on what he termed Nacchio's "disturbing revelation."


House Democrats vowed last week not to grant immunity in the eavesdropping bill without being told exactly what the companies did that requires legal protection.

Roughly 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies, saying they cooperated with the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the details of which are classified. U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly eavesdropped on calls and e-mails in the United States without court orders.