In an Oct. 12 letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Verizon officials said they acted under the emergency provisions of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). The committee is seeking information about the country's telecom carriers' cooperation, including possible violations of U.S. privacy laws, given the Bush administration's admitted domestic wiretapping program.
AT&T, of San Antonio, Texas, and Qwest Communications, of Denver, also responded to the committee's request for information, but provided no details, pointing out that they are under a federal order to not disclose any information about their activities.
"The United States, through a sworn declaration from the director of national intelligence, has formally invoked the states secrets privilege to prevent AT&T from confirming or denying certain facts about alleged intelligence operations and activities that are central to your investigation," Wayne Watts, AT&T's general counsel, wrote to the committee.
Qwest officials wrote a similar response.
However, New York-based Verizon provided details that show the Bush administration's interest in obtaining customers' electronic communications.
"Verizon would receive a classified written notice that the attorney general has authorized the emergency surveillance, stating the time of such authorization," wrote Randal S. Milch, senior vice president of legal and external affairs at Verizon. "We would provide the assistance requested as expeditiously as possible. If we do not receive a FISA order to continue the surveillance within 72 hours of the attorney general's authorization, the surveillance would be terminated."
Verizon also noted that in 2005, it cooperated with more than 90,000 legal requests backed by subpoenas or court orders issued by local, state and federal government officials. In 2006, Verizon responded to about 88,000 such requests, and through the first nine months of 2007, it had cooperated with 61,000 requests.
Verizon, AT&T and Qwest all contend they acted legally in reliance on existing federal, state and local laws.
"Current law … provides a complete defense to any provider who in good faith relies on a statutory authorization," Verizon wrote. "If the government advises a private company that a disclosure is authorized by statute, a presumption of regularity attaches."
All three carriers are involved in what AT&T characterized as a "maelstrom" of litigation over the domestic spying program. The New York Times first broke the story of the administration's warrantless wiretapping and USA Today later added that the National Security Agency is using information provided by telephone carriers to data mine tens of millions of calling records.
AT&T and others asked about government access to records. Click here to read more.
AT&T said the issue of disclosing its alleged participation in the domestic spying program rests with the White House, which is also seeking immunity for carriers in the legislation before Congress.
"Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive branch relating to government surveillance activities," AT&T wrote.
"Applicable legal rules make clear that much of the information you seek is under control of the executive and that disputes of this kind need to be resolved through accommodation between the two political branches of the government."
House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, said the carriers' response proved to him that the White House, "as the sponsor of this program and the party preventing the companies from defending themselves-is the entity best able to resolve the many outstanding issues. I look forward to meeting with representatives of the administration in short order, and I am hopeful that they will be forthcoming with the information Congress needs to properly evaluate this program."