For telecoms, a storm of lawsuits awaits
Major phone companies bob and weave on their roles in an NSA surveillance program, as they brace for legal action.
WASHINGTON — The forecast for major US phone companies this spring: continued heat, with a 100 percent chance of gathering lawsuits.
From New York to Kentucky to Texas, lawyers specializing in class-action litigation are lining up to sue phone firms alleged to have handed over customer records to the National Security Agency without a court order. On Monday, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed suit against AT&T, charging that its actions in the NSA program violated customer privacy.
"Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans," says author Studs Terkel, a Windy City icon and a plaintiff in the ACLU suit.
Despite this rush to the courthouse, it isn't yet clear which phone firms handed over what records to whom. Some companies have denied involvement - while critics note that those denials are carefully worded.
Further scrutiny by Congress or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is needed to resolve this issue for the public, say some.
"The accounts that have been provided by some of the phone companies regarding their involvement in the NSA program have hardly resolved the matter," wrote Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), in a letter to the FCC requesting an investigation.
Earlier this month, USA Today reported that AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth had turned over the call records of millions of Americans to the US government in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
These records didn't include names or the contents of calls, according to the newspaper. But they did list which numbers called which other numbers, both internationally and domestically, and how those calls were routed.
This information was then sifted by powerful computers in an attempt to discover a pattern that might reveal the presence of terrorists in the US. On Tuesday, USA Today reported that the NSA had used the phone records of the known 9/11 conspirators to try to establish a model of how terrorists communicate.
The companies named in the USA Today stories have all, to varying degrees, disputed the newspaper's account.
AT&T hasn't denied it - but it hasn't confirmed it, either. And it has said that no information was released illegally.
Verizon has flatly denied involvement in the NSA program. But it has left open the issue of whether MCI, the long-distance subsidiary it acquired in January, has turned over records to the government.
BellSouth, for its part, issued a statement earlier this month that said "based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA."
The use of the word "contract" in this denial appears to be a hedge, noted the EPIC in its letter to the FCC.
"With more questions being raised each day about the scope of participation by the telephone companies in the NSA's domestic surveillance program, the need for the FCC to undertake a comprehensive investigation has become clear," wrote Mr. Rotenberg.
USA Today has said it stands by its reporting on this issue, but it will review its actions in light of a call by BellSouth for a retraction.
For the phone companies, the stakes in this dispute could be enormous. If the legal claims gain traction, the case might equal in scope such past actions as litigation against the major tobacco companies.
A successful series of suits could cost the phone companies billions of dollars.
But the cases might be difficult for plaintiffs to win. Given the scope of the government's regulatory power over phone companies, the communications behemoths might be able to argue that they were coerced to turn over phone records - if, in fact, that is what they did.
Meanwhile, Qwest, another of the so-called Baby Bell phone companies, has emerged as an unlikely hero in the case given that its former chief executive has said he rebuffed the NSA's request for call records.