Qwest praised for declining NSA phone records request

A civil liberties group praised telecommunications carrier Qwest Communications International Inc. for refusing to turn over its customers' phone records to a U.S. spy agency.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) applauded Qwest's decision not to participate in a broad surveillance program, run by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), even though other large carriers have apparently complied. In January, the EFF filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T Inc. for its alleged participation in the NSA's "massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications."

"In our country, we follow the law," said Rebecca Jeschke, the EFF's media coordinator. "We don't follow orders. Qwest decided it had a responsibility to its customers and also its shareholders to follow the law."

Without court-issued warrants, the NSA's collection of phone records violates federal law, according to the EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), another civil liberties group.

USA Today, in a report published Wednesday, said the NSA has secretly collected the phone call records of "tens of millions" of U.S. citizens since late 2001. Telecom carriers AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc., and BellSouth Corp. have participated in the NSA surveillance program, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., USA Today said.

Qwest declined to turn over phone records to the NSA when it discovered U.S. agents would not seek court approval, said Herbert J. Stern, lawyer for Joseph Nacchio, a former chief executive officer at Qwest.

The U.S. government approached Nacchio and asked for customer phone records in late 2001, Stern said in a statement released Friday. The phone records requests continued until Nacchio left Qwest in June 2002, Stern said. A federal grand jury in Colorado indicted Nacchio in December on 42 counts of insider trading.

Qwest asked "whether a warrant or other legal process had been secured in support of that request," Stern said. "When he learned that no such authority had been granted and that there was a disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process ... Mr. Nacchio concluded that these requests violated [federal] privacy requirements. Accordingly, Mr. Nacchio issued instructions to refuse to comply with these requests."

U.S. President George Bush on Thursday defended his administration's terrorist-fighting methods, saying government agents are not monitoring the individual phone calls of "innocent Americans." Instead, the NSA has monitored records to detect calling patterns that suggest terrorist activity, USA Today reported.

But the CDT called on Congress to take "a comprehensive, in-depth and public inquiry into the scope of warrantless domestic surveillance."

"Congress and the American people can no longer be asked to simply accept the administration's vague assurances that the NSA spying programs are not infringing on the rights of ordinary Americans," CDT said in a statement.

But many U.S. residents don't seem to object to surveillance programs that could catch terrorists, said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst. Kagan doesn't see a market advantage for Qwest in its decision not to participate in the program, because the issue is more "political" than market-driven, he said.

"The government and the companies can't win no matter what they do," Kagan said in an e-mail. "If they do this to protect us we will complain. If they do nothing and we get attacked again, we will complain. So I guess in this dangerous world, we need to deal with some extra meddling even though we would rather not."


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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