Six weeks after press reports revealed that the National Security Agency maintains an enormous database of calls made within the United States, the CEO of AT&T refused to outline his company's involvement in the program, saying the information is "classified."
In a heated exchange Thursday with Judiciary Committee chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, AT&T's Edward Whitacre repeatedly declined to say whether his company provides information to the NSA.
Specter drilled Whitacre several times with increasing frustration until he finally asked, "Mr. Whitacre, are you declining to answer?"
"We follow the law," was Whitacre's repeated comeback.
The exchange between Specter and Whitacre was, to say the least, circuitous.
Specter: Does AT&T provide customer information to any law enforcement agency?
Whitacre: We follow the law, senator.
Specter: That is not an answer Mr. Whitacre, you know that.
Whitacre: That's all I'm gonnna say, is we follow the law. It is an answer. I'm telling you we don't violate the law, we follow the law.
Specter: Now, that's a legal conclusion, Mr. Whitacre. You may be right or you may be wrong, but I'm asking you for a factual matter -- does your company provide information to the federal government or any law enforcement agency, information about customers?
Whitacre: If it's legal and we're requested to do so, of course we do.
Specter: Have you?
Whitacre: All I'm going to say is we follow the law.
Specter: That's not an answer, it's not an answer, it's an evasion.
Whitacre: It's an answer.
Specter: If you're under instructions by the federal government…
Whitacre: We follow the law, senator.
Specter: You've said that. I don't care to hear it again.
Whitacre: I don't care to repeat it again but we do.
Specter: Well then, don't. If you're under instructions by the federal government as a matter of state secrecy not to talk, say so.
Whitacre: Senator, we follow the law.
Specter: Well, I think that answer is contemptuous of this committee.
Whitacre eventually told Specter he could not answer the question because it asked for "classified information."
BellSouth CEO Duane Ackerman was also at the hearing, but had an easier time than Whitacre. He told Specter he didn't think BellSouth had given information to the NSA.
"NSA did not ask BellSouth for information. We provided none," Ackerman said. "We've been unable to determine that we have provided any information to NSA."
After Specter was done, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- the ranking Democrat on the committee -- also questioned Whitacre and Ackerman about the NSA program. His chief concern was with a legal argument by AT&T in a California lawsuit. The company asserts that if you enter into a contract with them, they own your information as it pertains to the contract. Whitacre, however, said AT&T does not share the information with third parties.
Today's subcommittee hearing on the proposed merger between BellSouth and AT&T was not the expected forum for the exchange between Specter and Whitacre.
Until earlier this month, Specter had promised a hearing of the full Judiciary Committee to question the CEOs of all American telephone companies. But then, a frustrated Specter announced on June 6 that the hearing would not take place. He said he'd been told by the White House the CEOs wouldn't tell the committee anything about the program either in an open forum or in private session.
Democrats keen to question the CEOs cried foul and questioned how phone company CEOs could legitimately argue that they held state secrets.
The reported massive database of phone calls does not identify which person called who or where, but identifies phone numbers anonymously (assuming the phone number itself is not an identifier).
In addition to the call log, the NSA and the White House have come under fire for their domestic wiretapping program -- enacted shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- in which the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was ignored so that the government could listen to foreign calls made to the U.S. without a warrant.
Specter and Leahy have been critical of the secrecy surrounding both programs. Specter has authored legislation that would send the domestic surveillance program before a secret court to determine its legality.