Surveillance Battle: House Panel Aims at Telcos

By Justin Rood

Oct 2, 2007 4:07pm

Telecommunications giants AT&T, Verizon and Qwest are facing a congressional inquiry into the industry’s cooperation with a secret government surveillance program some say was illegal. The House Energy and Commerce Committee gave the companies until Oct. 12 to provide answers to questions on "reported efforts by government agencies to obtain information about customers’ telephone and Internet use," according to a release from the panel Tuesday announcing its investigation. "Congress has a duty…to examine the difficult position of the phone companies who may have been asked by the government to violate the privacy of their customers without the assurance of liability protections," said committee chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., according to the release. At least four other congressional panels have mounted investigations into the program, dubbed the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" by the White House. Those have mostly focused on the Bush administration’s role in the program. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. Verizon spokesman Peter Thonis said his company would respond "as best we can" to the panel’s request. Qwest and AT&T did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Qwest declined to comment, although the company has previously stated it declined to participate in the program, despite overtures from the administration. The House inquiry is the first time telco giants have faced public congressional scrutiny over the program since June 2006, when then-Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., vowed to subpoena AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth executives to testify on their companies’ role in the program. Specter scuttled the hearing at the last minute, after Vice President Dick Cheney intervened with private assurances the White House would entertain Republican-backed legislation to amend the program. Telcos face several state and federal lawsuits over their role in the program. The firms have reportedly banded together with the White House to lobby Congress to pass a law to retroactively legalize all cooperation the firms have provided intelligence agencies. Click here to read the letter to ATT Click here to read the letter to Qwest Click here to read the letter to Verizon This story has been revised. Click Here to Register for Blotter Alerts.

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