Verizon turned over data on customers at the request of the government 720 times without court orders or warrants in the past two years, the company admitted yesterday.
When court orders were provided, the company turned over customer data 94,000 times between January 2005 and September 2007.
The company's admission came as a response to an inquiry launched by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who wanted more information on the roles the major telecom companies played in assisting the government with domestic surveillance in recent years.
Committee members sent letters to AT&T;, Verizon, and Qwest Communications asking them to explain any roles they may have played in the NSA surveillance program and whether they were seeking immunity from prosecution for their actions.
AT&T; and Qwest declined to provide any information on whether or not they participated in the NSA surveillance program, citing the "state secrets" doctrine which would prohibit them from revealing classified information.
"We are unable to respond with specificity to your inquiries," wrote AT&T; vice-president and general counsel Wayne Watts. "That is because, on many issues that appear to be of central concern to you, responsive information is within the control of the executive branch...Indeed, we are not in a position even to confirm or deny the underlying facts or information that would be responsive to your request that would be considered classified."
Although Verizon counsel Randal Milch also did not confirm or deny that Verizon had been involved in the NSA's surveillance program, he enumerated cases of where Verizon complied with government information requests in criminal cases such as tracking child predators.
Milch also said that the responsibility for determining whether or not a request for information was legal rested with the government, not the company providing the data.
"When an emergency situation arises, prompt assistance is often needed," Milch wrote. "If the provider were to face legal liability in the event the government is later deemed to have acted outside its authority, the provider would have to meet every request for assistance with extensive questions about the need and justification for the request."
Oversight Subcommitee chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) said that he "recognized the unique legal constraints" the telecoms had which prevented them from sharing more information, but "important questions remain unanswered about how the Administration induced or compelled them to participate in NSAs eavesdropping program."
Although the Bush administration first refused to confirm the existence of the NSA surveillance program, then claimed it was legal, the White House has pushed to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to cover the program, and to grant the telecom companies that participated retroactive immunity from prosecution.
AT&T; and Verizon are currently facing multiple lawsuits from advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who claim the surveillance program violates the Fourth Amendment, and that granting federal authorities access to customer data without proper court orders is illegal.
EFF counsel Cindy Cohn, responding to the Committee request, wrote that "generalized fears are not sufficient to support a reasonable belief in an immediate threat to life or limb." Instead, the 'emergency exception' is reserved for specific emergency situations 'in which time is of the essence and requiring a court order be obtained would cause delay which could result in severe jeopardy for a victim of crime,'" Cohn wrote.