- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Telecommunications giant Qwest refused to provide the government with access to telephone records of its 15 million customers after deciding the request violated privacy law, a lawyer for a former company executive said yesterday.

In a written statement, the attorney for former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio said the government approached the company in the fall of 2001 seeking access to the phone records of Qwest customers, with neither a warrant nor approval from a special court established to handle surveillance matters.

“Mr. Nacchio concluded that these requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act,” attorney Herbert J. Stern said from his Newark, N.J., office.

The Bush administration is facing new questions about civil liberties after the disclosure that the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting telephone numbers to analyze calling patterns to detect and track suspected terrorist activity. Telephone customers’ names, addresses and other personal information were not provided to the NSA.

CIA director nominee Gen. Michael Hayden yesterday defended as lawful the secret surveillance programs he oversaw as NSA director, but he declined to comment on the phone-calls database or specific operations.

“It’s been briefed to the appropriate members of Congress,” Gen. Hayden told reporters outside a Senate office. “The only purpose of the agency’s activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people. And I think we’ve done that.”

Two New Jersey public interest lawyers sued Verizon yesterday for $5 billion, claiming the phone carrier violated privacy laws by turning over customers’ records. The lawsuit asks the court to stop Verizon from supplying the information without a warrant or the subscriber’s consent.

In a statement, Verizon said press coverage has contained errors about how the company handles customer information. “Verizon will provide customer information to a government agency only where authorized by law for appropriately defined and focused purposes,” the company said.

Lawmakers have been pressing the Bush administration for information about the NSA’s database of telephone records in advance of hearings reviewing Gen. Hayden’s nomination to be CIA director, scheduled for Thursday.

The White House yesterday reiterated its support for Gen. Hayden and the NSA’s operations.

“We’re 100 percent behind Michael Hayden,” said press secretary Tony Snow.

Mr. Snow added that questions on classified material may have to be handled in closed sessions with select senators who are cleared for access to that information.

Some senators were trying to separate the issue of Gen. Hayden’s confirmation from questions about White House decisions and the surveillance programs.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he didn’t yet know if collection of the phone records was illegal.

Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia, have said Gen. Hayden was relying on the advice of top government lawyers when the operations were initiated.

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