Major U.S. telephone carriers refused to answer questions from Congress about their possible participation in President Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program, according to documents released by lawmakers Monday.
At issue are reports that some telephone companies provided the government with access to millions of telephone records as part of the effort to combat terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Executives from AT&T; Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. told the House Energy and Commerce Committee they could not discuss specifics about their companies’ roles in any such effort.
The phone companies said it would be illegal for them to discuss the kind of program lawmakers were asking about without receiving permission from the administration.
AT&T; “essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities,” AT&T; General Counsel Wayne Watts said in a letter to the committee.
“Unfortunately, under current circumstances, we are unable to respond with specificity to your inquiries,” Watts said in the letter to the panel headed by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).
Bush has demanded retroactive immunity from liability for telecommunications firms that participated in warrantless surveillance as part of any new bill to revise the laws governing the tracking of suspected terrorists.
House Democrats have refused, saying the administration must first explain what these firms did before they would consider granting immunity.
The companies said they had policies in place to shield customers’ privacy but also said federal law authorized them to help the government investigate criminals and terrorists.
Verizon said phone companies had been targeted in a number of class-action lawsuits filed after the existence of the program was revealed.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush authorized the interception without warrants of communications between people in the U.S. and others overseas if one had suspected ties to terrorists. Critics charge that program violated the FISA law, but Bush argued he had wartime powers to do so.