WASHINGTON – Three telecommunications companies have declined to tell Congress whether they gave U.S. intelligence agencies access to Americans' phone and computer records without court orders, citing White House objections and national security.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell "formally invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent AT&T from either confirming or denying" any details about intelligence programs, AT&T general counsel Wayne Watts wrote in a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Qwest and Verizon also declined to answer, saying the federal government has prohibited them from providing information, discussing or referring to any classified intelligence activities.
"Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities," Watts wrote.
The White House declined to comment on the matter Monday.
The letter from Verizon provided some detail on the kind of information the government is seeking.
Verizon has been regularly asked in subpoenas and national security letters to identify a "calling circle" for certain telephone numbers and to provide related subscriber information.
The company has never complied with such a request as it does not maintain calling-circle records, according to Verizon general counsel Randal Milch.
The House is about to consider a new government eavesdropping bill. The White House has threatened to veto the bill unless it includes retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies that assisted government investigations without court orders.
The Bush administration has said the companies cooperated in good faith because of their patriotism and desire to protect the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and should not be punished.
However, last week a Colorado court unsealed documents in the case of former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, who was convicted of insider trading in April. Nacchio, who is appealing his conviction, maintains the National Security Agency asked Qwest to allow it to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order in February 2001, six months before the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., asked the Justice Department and McConnell for a full briefing on what he termed Nacchio's "disturbing revelation."
House Democrats vowed last week not to grant immunity in the eavesdropping bill without being told exactly what the companies did that requires legal protection.
Roughly 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies for their alleged cooperation with the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the details of which are classified. U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly eavesdropped on calls and e-mails in the United States without court orders.
A Senate version of the bill, scheduled for committee action on Thursday, is likely to include an immunity provision.
The Bush administration has thus far refused to disclose to Congress details of the program other than classified briefings provided to a small group of House and Senate intelligence committee members.
Telecommunications companies regularly and legally provide assistance to intelligence and law enforcement agencies. According to Verizon's Milch, the company received 88,000 lawful requests and demands for information from government entities — 34,000 from federal officials and 54,000 from state and local officials. Of those, 23,700 were emergency requests, 300 of them from federal officials.
Verizon received more than 1,000 wiretap and other court orders in 2006, he said. It has received more than 630 court orders since last January.