May 23, 2006 – Telecom giant Verizon is refusing to confirm or deny participation in the illegal National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping program, as citizens in Maine urge the stateâ€™s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to investigate whether the company handed over its phone records.
In a tight-lipped 44-page response to the PUC last Friday, Verizon argued that the Commission lacks the authority to investigate a complaint that the telephone company was involved in the NSA program. The company further claimed such information is protected by the "state-secrets privilege."
The complaint, filed on May 8 by a group of Mainers and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, petitioned the PUC to order Verizon to disclose whether it had released customer e-mail and phone records to the NSA. The groups also asked the PUC to find out if surveillance equipment had been installed in any Verizon facilities in the state. According to Maine law, the PUC is required to consider an investigation of any complaint against a utility company filed by ten or more customers.
The state-secrets privilege allows the government to invoke a national-security risk to avoid disclosing documents. In April, the Department of Justice said the Bush administration intends to use that privilege to intervene in a class-action lawsuit against AT&T in California regarding wiretapping.
"We were surprised to see Verizon make the state-secrets argument because only the government, not private entities, can assert that privilege," Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said in a press statement. "Use of the state-secrets argument indicates that Verizon lawyers may have worked closely with federal government lawyers in drafting a response to the commission."
News reports, including a USA Today article on May 11, suggest that the NSA has been secretly compiling phone-call records tens of millions of Americans with the help of telecommunications companies.
Last week, Verizon denied having handed over phone records to the NSA, but did not mention whether long-distance company MCI, which Verizon acquired earlier this year, may have done so.