Telecom companies refuse to disclose domestic surveillance role

[JURIST] Three telecommunications companies have declined to provide information to Congress [press release] about the role they played in the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program [JURIST news archive], citing White House objections to their disclosures, national security and pending litigation. Responding by letter to a request [PDF text] made by the House Energy and Commerce Committee [official website] to disclose their involvement in the surveillance program, AT&T [PDF text], Verizon [PDF text] and Qwest [PDF text] declined to answer specific questions about their roles in domestic surveillance, according to statements released by the committee Monday. All three companies face litigation relating to the information they did disclose to the government. Verizon and other telecommunications companies have acknowledged that they usually comply with lawful demands for call records, and the companies responded to the government requests in a timely fashion without determining the legality or necessity of the requests because their compliance could save lives in criminal investigations.

AT&T told Congress that they would not answer questions in what was essentially an "oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive," and Verizon and AT&T argued that the government should be required to prove that their information requests were lawful instead of placing the burden on the telecommunications companies. AT&T said "there are important and practical reasons" for refusing to verify information requested by Congress, arguing that they ensure that a subpoena for information has been properly executed, but that their responsibilities to ensure the legality of releasing the information requested "remains procedural in nature." AT&T added that "companies in the private sector almost certainly will not have access to the underlying operational information that would be necessary to decide complex constitutional questions about the scope of presidential power" and that "the law does not assign [telecommunications companies] the primary responsibility for policing government agencies." The Energy and Commerce Committee released the response letters from the telecommunications companies as Congress prepares to debate whether to grant telecommunications companies immunity [JURIST report] in pending litigation against them for disclosing phone records and other personal information to the government. The New York Times has more. AP has additional coverage. The Washington Post has local coverage.

 

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