WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission should investigate whether phone companies are violating federal communications law by providing calling records to the National Security Agency as part of an anti-terrorism program, an FCC commissioner said Monday.
"There is no doubt that protecting the security of the American people is our government's No. 1 responsibility," Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said in a statement. "But in a digital age where collecting, distributing and manipulating consumers' personal information is as easy as a click of a button, the privacy of our citizens must still matter."
USA Today reported last week that AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. began turning over tens of millions of phone records to the NSA after the spy agency requested the records shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The paper reported that the NSA is building a massive call databank to analyze calling patterns.
The telecommunications company Qwest said it refused to cooperate with the NSA after determining that doing so would violate privacy law.
On Monday, Atlanta-based BellSouth issued a statement that it had found no contract to provide phone records to the NSA and had not been providing bulk customer calling records to the agency. Verizon has refused to confirm or deny whether it has participated in the program.
The New York Times reported in December that the NSA was eavesdropping on electronic communications in the U.S. and abroad involving suspected Al Qaeda members and operatives. Critics of the eavesdropping programs, Democrats and Republicans, have questioned whether the NSA has stepped outside the law by not seeking court-ordered warrants.
President Bush, while not discussing the details of any NSA programs directed at detecting terrorism plots, has repeatedly assured Americans that the initiatives he authorizes are within the law and the Constitution and are not violating the privacy of ordinary Americans.
When the NSA developed the programs it was under the direction of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, now Bush's choice to replace Porter Goss as head of the CIA. The eavesdropping program and the phone call databank are likely to be the focus of questions Thursday when the Senate Intelligence Committee begins Hayden's confirmation hearings.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he wants to gather testimony from phone company representatives about how they work with the NSA because they cannot decline to cooperate by claiming executive privilege.
An FCC investigation, if undertaken, would be the second attempt this year by the government to explore an aspect of an NSA program. The Justice Department sought to investigate the role of its lawyers in the warrantless eavesdropping program, but it ended the inquiry last week because its lawyers were denied security clearances.
Copps cited the federal Communications Act when he questioned the legality of the phone companies' reported cooperation with the NSA.
"We need to be certain that the companies over which the FCC has public-interest oversight have not gone — or been asked to go — to a place where they should not be," Copps said.