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Phone Co Not to Testify to Congress on NSA

Phone Co Not to Testify to Congress on NSA
By LongDistanceUS.com on Wednesday, June 7 2006

The telephone companies accused of allowing the National Security Agency access to customer calling patterns dodged a bullet Tuesday when the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to defer issuing subpoenas to compel the telcos to testify.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he had decided not to push the issue after he learned from Vice President Richard Cheney that the telephone companies could not testify because the information was classified.

The NSA phone-records operation, first reported by USA Today in May, collects phone records and looks for trends that would indicate terrorist activities. The USA Today story said records from AT&T Inc. Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. were obtained but Qwest Communications International Inc. refused to participate. T-Mobile USA Inc. and Verizon Wireless have said they also did not participate.

“Did the vice president tell you why he allowed Qwest to say no, but not the others?” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member, asked Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) after she said she would oppose the subpoenas because the issue could not be discussed in open session. She said Cheney had briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on the matter.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said one of the telephone companies said they would testify but did not identify the company. With the exception of Feinstein, the Democrats were upset that a vote to compel the companies to talk was not taken.

Kennedy said he didn’t want or need to know “the operational details; not the who is listening into whom” but rather, “what is the legal justification? What are those telephone companies being told is the legal justification?”

It appeared that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had gotten a heads up that no vote would be taken because a majority of them chose not to attend the hearing. The Republicans, except Specter, who did attend left almost immediately.

“I want to note that the Republicans have left. I was hoping we would have a conversation but apparently not,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (R-Ill.), the minority whip. “What is the great embarrassment if we prepare a subpoena for the telephone companies and they contest it? … We are going to stop talking about these issues because it might embarrass either the telephone companies or the vice president.”

The FCC has said it will stay out of the NSA phone-records issue. Last month, the FCC told Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the House telecommunications subcommittee, that it could not investigate the situation because of “the classified nature of the NSA’s activities makes us unable to investigate the alleged violations.”

The NSA phone-records operation comes on the heels of revelations that telecommunications customer call records are being sold over the Internet. Telcos, especially mobile-phone carriers, spent the winter assuring the public, federal regulators and Capitol Hill that they do protect customer call records and that those who sell such records should be prosecuted.

Unlike the customer call records scandal, which erupted after a CBS Evening News report in January, the NSA program appears to only concern telephone numbers and not the associated names and addresses. However, many critics complained that crosschecking the phone numbers with other publicly available databases of names and addresses is easy. It is unclear whether the NSA database makes use of these other publicly available resources.

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