Phone Companies Gave NSA Millions of Call Records The nation's largest phone companies -- AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth -- reportedly have been providing the National Security Agency with call records of millions of Americans. The agency says it is not listening to the calls, only using them to form a database to detect potential terrorist activity.
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Phone Companies Gave NSA Millions of Call Records

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Phone Companies Gave NSA Millions of Call Records

Phone Companies Gave NSA Millions of Call Records

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

There are new allegations today that the National Security Agency has broadened its scope from intercepting international communications to compiling a domestic telephone database without any judicial oversight. Today's issue of USA Today sites anonymous sources who charge that the NSA has compiled telephone calling records for tens of millions of Americans.

SIEGEL: The report sparked outrage on Capitol Hill, where Michael Hayden is headed for confirmation hearings to lead the CIA. Hayden used to be the top man at the NSA. We'll hear from the Capitol in a few minutes and about how phone records might be used.

We're going to begin with NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The newspaper says that the NSA has compiled a huge database of domestic phone calls, who's calling whom but not, according to the paper, what they said. The paper says the government did not present a court order to get the information but that major telecom companies simply handed it over. Hours after USA Today hit the streets, the administration provided a spokesman, President Bush, who spoke just before he took off on a trip to Mississippi. The president did not respond to the charges directly. Instead, he reiterated that the administration's surveillance efforts are focused, first of all, on al-Qaida.

GEORGE W: Second, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. Third, the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful.

ABRAMSON: The newspaper says that only phone numbers are being provided, not names and addresses. But it notes that information is easily available through public databases. Again, without addressing the charges specifically, the president said government efforts are privacy sensitive.

BUSH: We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates.

ABRAMSON: In the past, the administration has said the president has the unfettered legal right to monitor international phone calls. The president didn't acknowledge that purely domestic surveillance exists, let alone whether it would be legal. The government could ask for a special surveillance warrant to track individual spies or terrorists. Otherwise, law professor Peter Swire says, there's only one way for the government to get domestic calling records.

PETER SWIRE: The stored records ordinarily require a court order or require a warrant in connection with a crime. And it would be an awfully overbroad warrant to have one crime, fifty million people.

ABRAMSON: Swire teaches law at Ohio State University. He says to track calls on an ongoing basis, the government would need a different kind of order linking each subject to an investigation.

SWIRE: So it has to be relevant to an ongoing investigation. But it has to be a criminal investigation and the person has to be relevant to that criminal investigation.

ABRAMSON: Without those orders, Swire says the phone companies could face civil penalties for handing over phone records. The USA Today article says AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth all provided calling records to NSA. Only Qwest, which covers 14 western states, refused to go along, citing legal concerns according to the paper. The companies all had little to say today except that they follow the law. BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey.

BILL MCCLOSKEY: BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.

ABRAMSON: Civil liberties groups have already filed several lawsuits charging that NSA spying is not narrow in focus but is instead the dragnet described in today's article. Kevin Bankston is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, which has sued AT&T for allegedly collaborating with the National Security Agency.

KEVIN BANKSTON: If this report is correct and our allegation is correct and AT&T has given NSA all of its records, there's not much more you need to prove. That's a plain violation of federal privacy statutes.

ABRAMSON: But just as the administration has refused to discuss the extent of NSA spying, it has also sought to shut down civil liberties lawsuits. Tomorrow, the government is expected to ask a federal court to dismiss the EFF suit, saying it would uncover state secrets if it went ahead.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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