Phone Companies Distance Themselves from NSA

Verizon joined Bellsouth in denying that the phone company gave calling data to the federal government, contrary to reports that surfaced last week.

For big telecommunications companies, any request by the government for customer information means walking through a public-relations and legal minefield, as executives and their attorneys have to weigh a host of strategic and legal considerations.

When the federal government asked the big telecom companies for customer data, they responded in different ways. Qwest refused, making it an overnight hero to privacy-rights groups. But USA Today reported last week that Verizon and AT&T had complied with the request.

AT&T issued a statement saying it had an obligation to assist government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare. Former FCC official Bob Atkinson says that, given all the legal and strategic factors, it's no surprise companies reacted so differently.

"The laws are murky, the ethics are murky," Atkinson said.

Another concern, experts say, is that a company may worry that if it turns down the government's request for information, the refusal will come back to haunt it later on — when it competes for a federal contract or wants to get a merger approved.

President Bush did not respond directly when asked Tuesday whether it was a violation of privacy laws for the NSA to seek phone records from telephone companies.

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