Democrat Calls for FCC Inquiry into NSA Phone Operations

A Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission is calling for the agency to investigate whether phone companies broke the law by giving customer calling records to the government. Regulating the telephone industry is one of the FCC's mandates.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A privacy group wants the Federal Communications Commission to investigate charges that phone companies gave customer calling information to the National Security Agency.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports that the move is the latest effort to force the government to look into the charges.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, a Washington-based privacy group, wrote to FCC Chair Kevin Martin today and requested the investigation. EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg says the FCC has jurisdiction here because the phone companies may have violated a key provision of the communications act.

Mr. MARC ROTENBERG (Electronic Privacy Information Center): And what that provision essentially says is that the telephone companies are under an obligation to protect customer record information. There are a lot of exceptions there and legal reasons why the information sometimes can be disclosed, but we don't believe that any of those exceptions apply.

ABRAMSON: The letter to the FCC notes that the major telecom companies have issued confusing statements in recent days. Verizon, for example, says it does not allow unfettered access to its records, but does not explicitly state that the company provided no records to the NSA.

One FCC Commissioner, Michael Copps, is already on record saying he favors an investigation, but the FCC could run into the same obstacle that the Justice Department faced. Staffers there could not get the security clearances needed for the probe and had to give up.

Meanwhile another effort to crack the secrecy surrounding the NSA program took one step forward, one step back. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing AT&T for allegedly giving the government access to communications traffic. Today a federal judge in San Francisco rejected a call by AT&T to have secret documents returned, documents that allegedly explain how the phone company cooperated with government surveillance efforts. But the judge said the information will remain under seal for the time being. The government wants this suit dismissed because it might reveal state secrets.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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