Can You Wiretap Me Now?

17 10 2007

The Washington Post reported yesterday that telecom giant Verizon handed over phone records to federal authorities without a warrant tens of thousands of times.

From January 2005 to September 2007, Verizon provided data to federal authorities on an emergency basis 720 times, it said in the letter. The records included Internet protocol addresses as well as phone data. In that period, Verizon turned over information a total of 94,000 times to federal authorities armed with a subpoena or court order, the letter said. The information was used for a range of criminal investigations, including kidnapping and child-predator cases and counter-terrorism investigations.

Verizon and AT&T said it was not their role to second-guess the legitimacy of emergency government requests.

The letters were released yesterday by the lawmakers as Congress debates whether to grant telecom carriers immunity in cases in which they are sued for disclosing customers’ phone records and other data as part of the government’s post-September 11 surveillance program, even if they did not have court authorization. House Democrats have said that they cannot contemplate such immunity without first understanding the nature of the carriers’ cooperation with the government.

On Saturday, the Washington Post also reported that Joseph P. Naccio, former CEO of Qwest Communications, said his former company was approached by the National Security Agency to participate in its warrantless surveillance program 6 months before 9/11. This entirely totally undermines the administration claims that they the program was launched in response to September 11th. When Qwest refused because of the questionable legal grounds, the government withdrew from contracts worth hundred of millions of dollars.

Nacchio’s account, which places the NSA proposal at a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, suggests that the Bush administration was seeking to enlist telecommunications firms in programs without court oversight before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Sept. 11 attacks have been cited by the government as the main impetus for its warrantless surveillance efforts.

Andrew Cohen at the Washington Post blog, Bench Memo succinctly captured the inanity of it all.

It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing– the fact that Verizon Communications turns over private phone records to the feds without a court order, or the fact that company officials take the position that it’s not their job to question the legality of “emergency” requests for such information.

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