Federal agency under fire and customers outraged by secret surveillance; Qwest praised for rejecting NSA's request
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Privacy-conscious customers took refuge in the apparent security of Qwest as reports Thursday said that the Denver-based company - the largest landline phone service provider in Utah - had turned down a warrantless request by the federal government for its customers' records.
Activists on the political left and far right already have launched campaigns to persuade people to switch to Qwest, which was being hailed by some as a "corporate hero." Meanwhile, amid allegations that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth had abetted a National Security Agency "data-mining" program by providing the secretive federal organization with the calling records of tens of millions of Americans, customers expressed dismay and some in Congress demanded an investigation. The criticism was echoed by privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, whose Utah director called the latest reports of broad domestic surveillance "creepy" and said the alleged program represented another way in which the merger of corporate and governmental data sharing had eroded Americans' constitutional rights.
In remarks at the White House, President Bush did not deny what he termed the "new claims" about the NSA's domestic surveillance program reported by USA Today, which cited numerous but anonymous sources as the basis for its article. However, Bush stressed that the government "does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval." USA Today reported the program is being used to search for patterns in landline and mobile phone use that might help identify terrorist networks. The article did not allege actual wiretapping.
But in a statement Thursday afternoon, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, appeared to flatly reject the existence of a data mining program. "If the NSA was doing what the papers claim it was doing, I would be opposed to the program," Bennett said in a statement. "But it is not, and I remain in favor of the program, which is necessary to protect us from future attacks." Bennett staff members later said the three-term senator - who does not sit on the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence or the subcommittee that reviews the NSA's domestic surveillance programs - was only "referring to the implication that many members of the media are drawing that the U.S. is indiscriminately listening to phone conversations of Americans." Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who does sit on the intelligence panel, was more reserved in his comments. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday morning, Hatch - bound by rules that prohibit him from either confirming or denying reports about classified information - did not specifically address the new allegations. Repeating comments made by the committee's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, Hatch said he was convinced the surveillance program authorized by Bush was lawful and that his subcommittee had been fully briefed on all aspects of its existence.
But some Congress members said the reports - if confirmed - could jeopardize the confirmation of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, head of the NSA during the time of the phone record gathering, as new head of the CIA.
Consumers also appeared uncomfortable with the matter. Callers to Qwest's customer service centers who were seeking to abandon their Verizon and AT&T service on Thursday were greeted with assurances that the company will respect and protect its customers' privacy.
Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said offering that greeting was "standard procedure" for the company's customer service representatives and wasn't anything new. Still, Qwest's representatives reported they received a large number of calls from potential customers eager to deal with a company that will respect their privacy.
It was too early to tell the extent of the impact on Qwest's business and the company declined official comment.
At a Verizon franchise store in Salt Lake City, Anne Marie Stahulak expressed delight that her two-year relationship with the New York-based telecom giant was over.
"It's a good thing I just did my last transaction with them," Stahulak said. "What they've done, it doesn't make me happy." "Unhappy" didn't cut it for Ammon Smith. "I'm angry. It makes me angry and nervous. They have too much control. Nazi Germany - that's what it will be soon." Smith paid his final bill at Verizon on Thursday. He said he had switched to Cricket, which has not been implicated in the data-sharing allegations.
By Thursday afternoon, a Web site had gone up called thankyouqwest.org, which encouraged visitors to contact the company's chief ethics officer to express their appreciation for so-called "NSA-free" phone service.
The liberal Web site dailykos.com had launched a campaign to encourage people to switch to Qwest service and, on the other end of the political spectrum, the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute extended "congratulations" to the company and "jeers" to its competitors. "It is not patriotic to obey the demands of government officials," the Cato posting said. The ACLU's executive director in Utah, Dani Eyer, said she was concerned that the government was continuing to use private businesses to gather information that it is constitutionally prohibited from collecting. She applauded Qwest "for being sophisticated enough about our basic rights and the law that they actually requested that the NSA go through the FISA courts if they want this information." The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court system, set up by Congress to oversee domestic spying, reviews applications for domestic intelligence surveillance and search warrant requests. The Bush administration has contended that the court's approval was not neccesary for another classified NSA program, reported last year, in which some domestic phone calls involving suspected terrorists were monitored without a warrant. The ACLU has filed suit seeking to end the practice and reveal its extent.
The USA Today report contends that the data-mining program also was initiated without FISA court approval. According to the report, Qwest's attorneys asked the NSA to get FISA approval. "They told [Qwest] they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one of the newspaper's sources reported. The newspaper reported that a second person independently confirmed that version of events.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a staunch supporter of the war on terrorism who also has earned a reputation as a maverick for pressing the Bush administration on some issues, said Thursday he would support an investigation into the NSA's "data mining" of domestic telephone records - a call repeated by others in Congress. "A hearing and a clear description of what is taking place is clearly called for," McCain told The Salt Lake Tribune. "Here's the dilemma: If two al-Qaida people in our country are talking to each other, we want to know about that. But [phone surveillance] has to be justified." U.S. Senate hopeful Pete Ashdown wrote in his campaign Weblog that he has grown a new appreciation for Qwest. "Where this incredible display of spine sourced from, I can not explain," he said. "But it makes me feel a little bit better . . . to be in a Qwest service region. Why the rest of our corporate overlords are so quick to bow to government monitoring is a better question." Ashdown, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Hatch, is founder of the Utah-based Internet service provider Xmission. Representatives at the Salt Lake City-based company said they would not give out any customer's account information without a subpoena.
The founder of another Utah-based communications company was even more adamant.
"We have a sacred obligation to our customers to protect their privacy," said Beehive Telephone Co.'s Art Brothers, whose past duels with telecommunications regulators are legendary.
Brothers said his tiny rural company would have told the NSA that its customer records were private and to get them the government would need a court order.
"If [the NSA] were to call and ask for those records it would almost be like a comment on our virginity," he said. "Well, it isn't available for free."
Tribune reporters Glen Warchol and Steven Oberbeck contributed to this report.