NEW YORK – A civil rights group filed complaints in 20 U.S. states Wednesday and invited the public to pressure officials to probe whether phone companies broke laws by sharing customer records with the government's biggest spy agency.
The American Civil Liberties Union announced its "Don't Spy On Me" campaign with the complaints to state utility commissions and attorneys general and with a demand that the Federal Communications Commission in Washington look into the matter.
In full-page ads in eight newspapers, the ACLU asked readers to join the formal complaints because, as it said in bold type: "AT&T, Verizon and Other Phone Companies May Have Illegally Sent Your Phone Records to the National Security Agency."
The campaign, symbolized by a telephone with an eye on it, urges the members of the public to go to an ACLU Web site to add their names to the complaints about allegations that telecommunications companies illegally cooperated with the NSA to collect calling information patterns on Americans.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a teleconference Wednesday that the organization was demanding investigations by oversight bodies because Congress has been "curiously silent" on the issue and because the public must pressure public officials to do their jobs.
Barry Steinhardt, an ACLU director, said it was "breathtaking and truly frightening" to think the government might be forcing telephone companies to expose the records of tens of millions of Americans.
Romero said the ACLU wanted to pressure the FCC and its chairman, Kevin Martin, to investigate the telephone records program even though Martin has said the agency does not have the power to review classified information.
A Democratic FCC commissioner, Michael J. Copps, said last week that the agency should investigate phone companies involved in the NSA program.
President George W. Bush and other administration officials have neither confirmed nor denied a USA Today report that the NSA is collecting the calling records of ordinary Americans in its effort to detect the plans of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
Bush has said the administration's anti-terrorism surveillance programs are legal and constitutional.
The ACLU set up special Web pages as part of the campaign. The pages featured a banner on top with the words "Don't Spy On Me" over a black background and a logo of a white telephone with a dark eyeball in the middle of it.
The civil rights group asked the public to "tell the Federal Communications Commission to get the spies off the line."
It said FCC officials have the authority and obligation to investigate the NSA spying scandal "despite their wrong-headed refusal to act," and urged people to "tell the regulators to take action and penalize any phone company that is colluding with the Bush administration's illegal program."
"Add your name to the public record," it said, "and support our formal demand to the FCC."
The ACLU said its complaints were filed in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
The ACLU late last year had asked people on its Web site to e-mail senators asking them to insist that the Department of Justice appoint a special counsel to investigate and prosecute any crimes related to Bush's decision to authorize the NSA to monitor — without warrants — people inside the United States.
The administration had said the NSA's activities were narrowly targeted to intercept calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the U.S. with suspected ties to Al Qaeda.
The ACLU had provided visitors to its Web site with a fill-in-the-blank system to send along a pre-prepared e-mail.