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Privacy Communications Government United States Politics

Phone Companies Refuse to Give Congress Data on Spy Program 279

JohNNy1+4 writes "Several US telephone communications firms are refusing to answer the questions of a congressional panel about spying on American citizens. The panel is making an inquiry into Bush administration tactics in the years since 2001, but has been stymied by the administration's claim that releasing that information would be illegal. As a result Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest have declined to answer the panel's queries. '"Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities," AT&T Inc. General Counsel Wayne Watts said in a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee that was released today by the panel.'"
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Phone Companies Refuse to Give Congress Data on Spy Program

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  • Don't blame me! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Qzukk ( 229616 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:23AM (#20996253) Journal
    I was just following orders!
    • Re:Don't blame me! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:37AM (#20996487)
      > I was just following orders!

      "If AT&T has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear!"

      What's the over/under on cliches from tired totalitarian regimes for this session of testimony? I've got $10 riding in today's "Totalitarian Bingo" game and I still need a "Papers Please", "(n, canonically Five)-Year Plan" and a "Little (colored, canonically Red) Book" to win.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jellomizer ( 103300 ) *
      I am not a big fan of Telcos myself. But they were between a rock and a hard place. Telcos and Government work hand to hand because they need both to keep and maintain their infrastructure so if the government says we need this Telcos will comply because the consequence could be dire. Comply and possibly be sued by a watchdog group. Or not comply and possible be sued by the government, loose contracts, Get sued by stock holders, Loose market value... The flip side of Just Following Orders is the consequenc
      • Re:Don't blame me! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Volante3192 ( 953645 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @11:04AM (#20996961)
        Or not comply and possible be sued by the government, loose contracts

        I don't quite see how they could be sued by the government. It's one thing if the gov't had the proper warrants, but in this case it's just giving in. Legally, they'd be in the right to not comply.

        As far as losing contracts...well...who ELSE would the government go to? It's not like a NASA contract and they have between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. They can't choose between phone providers. "Well, gee, AT&T won't let us tap their lines. But they own the lines. Oh well, we're boned."
        • The legal system and the laws on the book are a mess. Much of it can be flexed/twisted interpreted or reinterpreted. So generally they could sue you, and stretch a law to make them seem in the right. For example (IANAL) they could state because x% of the Telcos infrastructure is owned by the government that this data is x% owned by the government so they have the rights to view it.

          As for contracts it would be like AT&T we want to expand our lines across this national park we will do it in a way that i
        • Re:Don't blame me! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by quixote9 ( 999874 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @11:49AM (#20997765) Homepage
          Honestly. Verizon even said that they never checked the legality. I'm sure they'd have the same attitude if I spied on my sister because "my brother-in-law made me do it."

          Idiots.

          Venal idiots.

          Venal, cowardly, criminal idiots.
        • They don't have to be sued by the Executive. They can be ordered to testify in front of Congress. If they refuse, they can be found in contempt of Congress.

          All the following is a summary of info from Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:
          Both houses can initiate criminal proceeding which can bring up to a year in confinement. The Senate also has procedures to initiate civil action against someone the Senate considers to be in contempt, but that only applies to Executive branch personnel.
          • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

            That would be a good start. Another good start would be to tell them that if they don't comply, you'll slip a rider into the next telecom bill that provides huge block grants for the installation of municipal communications infrastructure, VoIP research, etc. and explicitly exclude the major telcos from participation---basically threatening to create devastatingly cheap competition as a way to decimate their business if they don't testify.

      • by mstahl ( 701501 )

        Now the democrats are out for blood, so the Telcos want protection before they help if not they will get into more problems.

        It's more than just protection from the democrats. The Telcos will side with the Executive branch because the Executive, not the Legislative, has the power to criminally prosecute them if they don't stay on the right side of the line in the sand. If the Bush Administration told them that revealing this information would be illegal, then they probably mean that they'll find a way to prosecute if that happens.

        They're definitely stuck between a rock and a hard place... I just don't know if they'll end up ch

        • What do you mean, you don't know? The only responsibility of a corp. is to do everything they can to turn a profit. There is no reason for them to "choose what's right over what keeps their asses covered"
    • I was just following orders!
      No, I can't tell you the details of the orders I was following either.
    • ...is patently ridiculous. Congress is part of the government. How can one branch of government keep a secret from itself, unless it is claiming that Congress can't have oversight or is claiming some sort of wacky separation of powers/executive privilege. Not to mention, AT&T isn't the government, and can't assert that it has the State Secret Privilege...
      • by Rycross ( 836649 )
        Not that I disagree with the gist of your argument, but government keeps secrets from itself all the time. Theres a huge amount of information thats on a "need-to-know" basis. Not that, in this case, it isn't just one giant cop-out.
    • Seriously, this is a slippery slope.
  • If a congressional panel doesn't legally have jurisdiction on a matter like this, then companies can't be expected to legally comply. If Congress wants oversight -- and why shouldn't it have this oversight? -- they should legislate it as such. They have the power to legislate, and they should use it.
    • by IgnoramusMaximus ( 692000 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:30AM (#20996359)

      and why shouldn't it have this oversight?

      That is because it is their role. In order to legislate, they have to be able to determine the facts to adjust the legislation accordingly. That is why they have very broad investigative powers. Also it is the role of Congress to oversee the Executive, and if necessary investigate it and even remove the President, if the investigation warrants it. Note that the Constitution provides no means for the Executive to remove Congress.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by megaditto ( 982598 )

        Note that the Constitution provides no means for the Executive to remove Congress.

        Well, according to Article Two:

        The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States [...] except in Cases of Impeachment.

        Would be interesting to see what is faster, a nuclear-tipped GPS-guided cruise missile or a Congressional impeachment procedure.

        And if the missile wins and the courts start to ask questions, the Pres can pardon everybody involved.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          There is a term for this plan: coup d'état.

          And it would mean the end of the US as a Republic and an official beginning of the Empire.

          Also note that in an effort to prevent such a scenario, all the armed forces take an oath to the Constitution, not to the President to make clear which has precedence over which.

          • by CodeBuster ( 516420 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @11:31AM (#20997459)
            And it would mean the end of the US as a Republic and an official beginning of the Empire.

            Which is precisely what happened to Ancient Rome [wikipedia.org]. The Republic of Rome was effectively dead by the time Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus had fully consolidated their positions, but for the following several hundred years most Roman citizens politely pretended otherwise. I am not suggesting that this will happen to us, but it is wise to learn the lessons of history.
        • "Would be interesting to see what is faster, a nuclear-tipped GPS-guided cruise missile or a Congressional impeachment procedure"

          If we can just guarantee that Bush and Cheney are in the White House at the same time both houses are in session.
      • >>Note that the Constitution provides no means for the Executive to remove Congress.

        Sure it does. It's called the commander in chief. the Executive can simply order the military to detain congress. Of course it means you have to have generals in charge that are only loyal to the executive, and not to democracy.

        Unless something changes drastically I fully expect a President to try this within the next 20 years.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Grishnakh ( 216268 )
          Unless something changes drastically I fully expect a President to try this within the next 20 years.

          I think the likelihood of this is rather remote, and I'm very pessimistic. If this were to happen, it would have to happen in less than 500 days, as that's the amount of time GWB has left, and he's the one I'd expect to try something like this if his chosen successor doesn't win the '08 election and continue the Iraq War and neocon empire-building. But I still really doubt he'd do it, even if an anti-war c
          • by masdog ( 794316 )

            and also overturning the Second Amendment and banning most firearms.

            I don't think this is very likely. There is a lot of political power tied up in Guns through the NRA and other pro-2nd Amendment groups. Even if it did pass, it would likely start a civil war because there are a lot of "you can pry my gun from my cold, dead hands" types in the US.
    • by Guppy06 ( 410832 )
      "they should legislate it as such."

      And what happens when the president vetoes it?
  • by IgnoramusMaximus ( 692000 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:27AM (#20996297)

    Isn't the US Constitution clear on the point of oversight, giving Congress the ability to investigate and even remove the president, but not the other way around?

    Or is the US truly near its nadir and soon "el Presidente" will be running everything, unopposed.

    • by Nevyn ( 5505 ) *

      Or is the US truly near its nadir and soon "el Presidente" will be running everything, unopposed.

      Cheney just likes Hillary so much he's making sure she'll be the most powerful person in US history.

    • Oh, the US is nowhere near its nadir. I think this phase is technically known as Brennschluss [wikipedia.org]. We will be closer to the nadir when people, on reading this, think "well, why wouldn't the corporations help the government in any way they can?" and closer yet when the media no longer reports on such things.
    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
      Apparently the telcos think they only answer to ONE branch of government, and freely ignore the other two. Sadly, Congress is so weak and spineless at this point that they won't even be able to do anything about it. At this point, with Congress doing little more than putting a checkmark on everything the President asks for and the Supreme Court packed with conservative, the other branches had might as well disband and make it an OFFICIAL monarchy.
    • In theory, the three branches of government are supposed to be equal. However, the Executive branch is in charge of the federal prosecutors and the military. If you piss off the Executive, your mergers will get denied by the SEC and the FTC (executive), you might get jailed or Gitmo'd for breaching national security (executive), prosecuted for Enronesque escapades (executive), etc.

      I'd rather piss off Congress than this President. Don't forget they outted a spy just because her husband was a critic of the Ex
  • Anyone else... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jarjarthejedi ( 996957 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .hcnipnaitsirhc.> on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:30AM (#20996341) Journal
    Anyone else find it amusing that they'll give information on everyone else to the government, but not themselves? That game me a little, sad, chuckle
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by vil3nr0b ( 930195 )
      I find it amusing those same companies steal from their customers and their customer's government with (insert dirty business finance trick here). Then they spy illegally on us. This is our country and these companies should be taken down for treason. Spy on our citizens and you deserve to be lined up against a wall and shot.
  • Contempt of Congress (Score:5, Interesting)

    by apparently ( 756613 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:30AM (#20996357)
    Since when is it up to a subpoenaed third-party to make claims regarding oversight between branches of government? Find the fuckers in contempt of congress, and stop dragging this shit out already. We'll see how quick they start talking as they're frog-marched out by the Sergeant at Arms.
    Stop and delay, stop and delay, eh, fellas?
    • Since when is it up to a subpoenaed third-party to make claims regarding oversight between branches of government?

      The Telcos are relaying the message from the Justice department. A better question: how can the State Secrets Privilege apply against Congress, a branch of the state?

      The clever thing for the Telcos to do might be to try getting the Congress' questions in written form, along with the instruction from the Judiciary to shut up, then provide the answers in sealed escrow to the Judiciary, to h


      • The judiciary has not told anyone to shut up.
        • This his point. THe judicial branch as this time is a neutral 3rd party. That's why they would be the ones holding the documents in escrow.
          • by abb3w ( 696381 )

            THe judicial branch as this time is a neutral 3rd party.

            Ding! Or at least, as close to one as can be found in the current circus [school-house-rock.com], and an obvious choice to settle a dispute between the Legislative and the Executive. Of course, presumably if both Congress and the Justice Department come to a sensible^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H acceptable^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H sane^H^H^H^H compromise that doesn't make everyone grab for their guns, the Judiciary would hand over whatever is asked for at the mutual request... and sit on i

          • I don't see how this is related to the Executive branch at all so why is congress not a neutral party? Congress doesn't even need to bring the executive branch into this issue.

            I don't see how there is any confusion or even a leg to stand on here. If what they did was illegal, it's illegal despite what anyone in the executive branch says. Congress should just ignore the smokescreen of bringing the executive branch into this issue and concentrate on compelling the telcos to testify or be punished. And t
    • Yeah, I don't really understand this. The executive can make claims until they're blue in the face. Big deal. Congress subpoenas people, if they don't comply they get contempt of congress. Why isn't this happening? I'm sure my understanding is wrong, but can someone explain why?
      • >if they don't comply they get contempt of congress. Why isn't this happening? I

        Having been subpoena'd, I can imagine... You can object to the subpoena. They'd have a pretty powerful objection in the "The president told us not to talk", and it's not clear to us he doesn't have that authority.
        For this specific issue, Congress should order the records held in escrow, and go after whoever in the Executive branch is causing this confusion.
    • by rk ( 6314 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @11:46AM (#20997719) Journal
      Wait, contempt of Congress is a CRIME?! Oh, hell, I'm in deep shit, 'cause I have nothing BUT contempt for those asshats. ;-)
  • How the...? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by twifosp ( 532320 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:31AM (#20996377)
    It's too bad these Reps won't have the balls to send subpoenaes to the CEO's of these companies, drag them in front of congress, and find them in contempt of congress for refusing to comply.

    The American government no longer matters. Welcome back to the Fuedal ages everyone! CEO's and boards are the land owners, lawyers are the knights. Get back to work you serfs.

    • Re:How the...? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by TheCarp ( 96830 ) * <(sjc) (at) (carpanet.net)> on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @11:00AM (#20996891) Homepage
      Well I mean... yah.

      Have you ever looked at the term "Wage Slave" and thought of how apt it really is?

      I mean, sure, you can do what you want and say what you want. However, you like to eat don't you? Well, unless you raise and slaughter your own, that takes money. Want money? Well I guess you could start your own small buisness and drum up clients among your fellow free people... but realistically, for most, it means being someones wage slave.

      Wage slave show up at 8 am. Wage slave, wear clothes according to this policy.

      All the money is in the hands of the upper class, and the lower classes are lucky to slurp up what they can. Wages are balanced against social order, pay people just enough to be too comfortable to revolt.... have enough wage slaves under you, and you get the ear of congress. Thats not enough? Get together with a bunh of other upperclassmen and collectively get the congresscritters ear (its cleaner that way).

      Overall mass media is capable of keeping things too confusing and spreads the idea that its all rigged and your vote doesn't matter anyway. Put up two nearly identical puppets who are both wholly owned subsidieries of some federation of corperations.

      Make the people feel they are getting what they deserve because nobody is willing to stand up en mass, all while making issues too confusing and convoluted for anyone to get such a mass to stand up in the first place. Toss in a few wedge issues to get people a bit worked up over something that doesn't actually matter, to blow off the steam. And voi la.... you have a system of wage slavery that lets everyone pat themselves on the back for how free we are.

      Free....to do as we are told.

      -Steve
      • But money is worthless. It's only value is that it can be used to convince others to do things for you. And it's always possible to go into business for yourself, but unless you hire people, you'll never do anything big, but that doesn't solve the wage slave problem: you'll just be the landowner.

        And it gets worse. One person can't build a modern combine by himself. So farming would have to be done with equipment that can be produced by a single person. Far less efficient in terms of man-hours, so you'll
    • by Myopic ( 18616 )
      The essential difference is that in our society, anyone who works hard enough can become a lawyer or even a CEO. That's a far better system than allowing those jobs to be inhereted. We didn't eliminate power, but we limited it, and we opened it up to everyone (on a sliding scale of availability).
      • Well, works hard enough and has the right combination of luck and ability. I'm completely laissez-fare in my views, but let's be honest about what the situation actually is. If you've got powerful friends and family to make the path easier for you, you can do well without a lot of hard work OR ability. And if you're saddled by a difficult family situation, no opportunities for education growing up, or other hardship beyond your control, you've got a much slimmer (but still very real) chance of moving up in
    • Welcome back to the Fuedal ages everyone! CEO's and boards are the land owners, lawyers are the knights. Get back to work you serfs.

      Hey now! Don't dis medieval fuedalism. Those serfs got more time off for religious holidays and farming downtime than we do today at our jobs.

      Oh wait... That just means the wage-slave is less free than the serf.
  • In other words... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sweatyboatman ( 457800 ) <sweatyboatman@NosPaM.hotmail.com> on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:31AM (#20996383) Homepage Journal
    Our lawyers are pretty sure we broke the law and complied with an illegal order. But they're also pretty sure that Congress doesn't have the balls to confront the White House about this. So, complain all you want, but we'll being skiing in hell before we testify before Congress about this.
  • Scumbags (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Experiment 626 ( 698257 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:31AM (#20996387)

    Oh sure, now they stand up to a request from the government and refuse to fulfill it on the grounds that it would be "illegal". Maybe they should have given that response to the NSA instead of saving it for Congress.

  • Premise wrong (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    The whole premise of this article is wrong.

    The program REQUIRES that they go to court if an American is involved. Just because "I read this on 'so-and-so' website", doesn't make those "they're spying on Americans without court orders" true. If you're buying into that, you're an idiot for being a sheep not finding out the facts for yourself. Reminds me of people that go on protests organized by "ANSWER", but don't know who "ANSWER" really is. Useful idiots.
    • by Qzukk ( 229616 )
      The program REQUIRES that they go to court if an American is involved.

      If AT&T has done nothing wrong, what do they have to hide?

      Or is that argument only to be used against the peons when they get uppity about big brother looking down on them?
      • by robkill ( 259732 )
        If AT&T has done nothing wrong, what do they have to hide?

        In this case, even if AT&T has done nothing wrong, they have been told in very bold terms by the DHS that if they divulge details, then they are guilty of divulging "state secrets" and will be prosecuted accordingly. The blame once again goes back to the executive branch of government.

        It would be interesting if Congress held a closed session, where the "state secrets" defense didn't apply, and put the telecom executives under oath. I'm sure
  • by Borealis ( 84417 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:32AM (#20996403) Homepage
    Arrest their CEOs for contempt. When the VPs fail to provide the data, arrest them too. Work on down the line.
    • When I read this, I saw Malcolm Reynolds kicking people into spinning turbines.

      It was glorious.
    • by inKubus ( 199753 )
      They need to go to the guys who run the CO's, those guys will let you in to see the little closet they had to build for every CO.. This is already public knowledge from the ACLU and EFF lawsuits. You think they only did that in San Francisco? They can easily get a list of all the CO's from the FCC, then work their way thru the list. Say there are 10000 CO's in America, and it costs $100,000 per CO for the "upgrades", that's only $1Billion, a grain of sand in the NSA/Homoland Security budget. Plus we al
  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:39AM (#20996523) Journal

    Why yes I raped you, but telling that to the jury would just violate your privacy, so I won't. Ain't I a nice guy.

    These companies violated the law, and now claim that confessing to that, violates the law?

    I shot you in the head, but I won't take you to the hospital in a car because well, I don't have a driving license and I don't want to break the law.

    The sooner this US goverment is taken down and replaced the better. I guess it is clear how republicans think, screw a girl IMPEACH, screw the nation, you are a hero!

  • What would TJ say? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sloppy ( 14984 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:50AM (#20996693) Homepage Journal
    "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"
  • by nickmalthus ( 972450 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:57AM (#20996823)
    That they ignored the request of the Congress (the will of the people) and instead chose to hide behind the president and so called state secrets. Shame on them and their disrespect for our Republic. They apparently believe that the president will protect them from punishment for their criminal acts. Congress establishes the laws in this country and as representatives of the American people they have every right to make sure the laws are carried out as intended. What is it that the executive branch and these companies are up to that they are so scared of revealing to Congress? According to our president only the terrorists have something to hide from the government so by extension does hiding information from Congress make the president and these companies terrorists?
  • Big surprise (Score:5, Insightful)

    by smashp ( 1174745 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @10:58AM (#20996851)
    The Phone Companies are letting the government use their equipment to spy on Americans. In Return they mega corporations will get support from certain members of congress and the executive for supposed "Pro Business" regulations. These "regulations" will cement these corporations and give them government supported monopolies and allow the Telecoms to govern and regulate themselves. In Essence, they have entered into an unholy alliance with the US government. Greed is enabling, Power is corupting. You are witnessing the Rise of Pure Fascism in the US.
  • Excuse me but what kind of insolence is this ? doesnt congress represent american people ? what kind of charade is this.
    • by tsotha ( 720379 )

      Insolence? That's an odd word to use in a republic.

      And doesn't the president represent the American people as well?

  • Corporate Executive (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Tuesday October 16, 2007 @11:32AM (#20997473) Homepage Journal
    Congress can file contempt charges against the telcos refusing formal requests, but those contempt charges have to be prosecuted by the Attorney General. Who is, of course, in Bush's pocket, chosen to protect illegal programs exactly like the one these telcos helped Bush violate. We don't even have an actual AG right now, but whoever is in the job will run interference against justice - obstruction of justice, but the bureaucratic kind that's even harder to get the Department of Justice to prosecute.

    That logjam is one reason why Congress should have impeached Gonzales, the illegal wiretapping program's primary defender. Trying his impeachment would have given Congress power to force the telcos to turn over the evidence, without relying on the Justice Department whose head was on trial. In fact, it's still not too late to try Gonzales, even though he's out of office, as there is clear precedent in US law. William Belknap [wikipedia.org] was impeached after he resigned (like Nixon, he resigned to escape impeachment).

    Or, better yet, cut off the snake's head: impeach Cheney. Or cut out its forked tongue: impeach Bush.

    Or leave it all to politics as usual, and leave the telcos and the next government with these same abusive powers. And watch the country continue to go down the drain, sacrificing both wealth and freedom on the altar to fruitless imperial power.
  • A law that revokes their FCC licenses.
  • They are reluctant to give the info over without a granting of immunity.
  • Is the the executive or the legislative that butter's the telco's bread? (Okay, safer to ask is it the republicans or the democrats I know...) But of all the telecoms out there, Qwest refused to help with the executive's illegal activities and somehow Qwest is now under the gun for all sorts of things. Perhaps it would be best of the legislative started handing over various contracts to Qwest and start raising taxes on communications while controlling what the telecoms can charge the consumer.

    I find it m
  • You ask why?

    Things Are a Lot Worse than We Thought!:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIO-tCPSfHA [youtube.com]

    Don't shoot the messenger.
  • why is everyone shouting 'threat this...', 'contempt that...' as what congress should do to gett eh answers that it wants? What congress needs to do is guarantee immunity from prosecution under whatever probably-invalid-anyway national security rules AT&T says makes it illegal for them to release the information. If they really are a dumb functionary simply complying with the law in all of this, then, once they have that guarantee, it's in their best interests to hand the information over.
    They will co-
  • I saw the Frontline TV story a few days ago on this matter.

    Though they did not say this, it was obvious that what the government was saying was BS as well as the bias of the story line.

    I don't care if they really do have the ability to process such massive amounts of data, the fact still remains that using common language and subject matter as coded messages cannot be detected with such equipment... this goes back to the civil war underground railroad communications that even included song as example.

    Howeve

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