When the National Security Agency approached the largest telecommunications carriers in the U.S. for their assistance in compiling a database of every call ever made, most of them readily cooperated. Qwest, however, reportedly told the NSA to go pound sand, noting that the company would face legal liability if the scheme ever became known. Indeed, the program was revealed Thursday, and the first complaints were filed Friday.
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth are turning over call detail records to the NSA for all of their customers’ telephone calls, local, long distance and international, for data mining and social network analysis in order to identify potential terrorist activity, according to a USA TODAY report published Thursday. The Bush administration has refused to confirm or deny the existence of the program.
In Maine, 21 Verizon customers filed a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission asking the PUC to investigate the matter. In that state, the PUC is required to launch an investigation if ten or more customers file the same complaint.
In Vermont, the governor has ordered the Department of Public Service to investigate whether Verizon broke any state laws. “It is entirely inappropriate for Verizon, or any other telecommunication company, to release Vermonters’ phone records without abiding by the proper legal process,” said DPS commissioner David O’Brien.
Meanwhile, two New Jersey lawyers have filed suit against Verizon alleging it violated the Stored Communications Act by providing call detail records to the NSA.
Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, the lawyers who filed the federal suit against Verizon on Friday, said they would consider filing suits against BellSouth and AT&T.
“This is almost certainly the largest single intrusion into American civil liberties ever committed by any U.S. administration,” Afran said.
The suit seeks $1,000 in damages for each record improperly turned over to the NSA, or up to $5 billion in all. The law gives consumers the right to sue for violations of the act and allows them to recover a minimum of $1,000 for each violation.
“No warrants have been issued for the disclosure of such information, no suspicion of terrorist activity or other criminal activity has been alleged against the subscribers,” the suit alleges. — Seattle Times
Update: In addition, Darryl Hines of Beaverton, Ore., filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Verizon in U.S. District Court in Portland Friday. He has asked for the case to be certified as a class action lawsuit.
“It is simply illegal for a telephone company to turn over caller records without some form of legal process, such as a court order or a subpoena,” said James X. Dempsey, a lawyer for the Center for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco.
The 1986 law “was Congress’s effort to create a comprehensive privacy right and to apply it to all forms of electronic communications,” said Dempsey, who was then a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. — Los Angeles Times
In a statement released Friday by the company in response to allegations that it participates in the previously revealed terrorist surveillance program, “Verizon cannot comment on that program, nor can we confirm or deny whether we have had any relationship to it.”
“Verizon does not, and will not, provide any government agency unfettered access to our customer records or provide information to the government under circumstances that would allow a fishing expedition,” the statement read. This, of course, says absolutely nothing.
And as National Review Online points out, the domestic call record program doesn’t seem to get the government in any hot water. “In sum, the alleged government data collection described by USA Today does not, on its face, violate the Fourth Amendment or FISA,” writes counterterrorism consultant Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.
From the government’s perspective, the setup was ideal. It appears that nothing in current law prohibits the government from attempting to gather the call detail records for every American’s telephone calls. Rather, it appears that the law prohibits the telephone companies from divulging it, specifically to the government, without a court order. So NSA could — and probably did — strong-arm the carriers into cooperating. It might even have promised to protect the companies from the inevitable lawsuits by using the state secrets privilege.