BellSouth denies giving call data to NSA

Telephone carrier denies turning over call records as part of the NSA's call-tracking program to detect terrorist plots.

BellSouth, the No. 3 U.S. local telephone carrier, on Monday denied turning over customer telephone records to the National Security Agency on a large scale as part of the NSA's call-tracking program to detect terrorist plots.

USA Today reported last week that BellSouth, AT&T, and Verizon Communications had turned over tens of millions of consumers' telephone records to the NSA so it could analyze call patterns.

BellSouth said in a statement Monday that it did not have a contract with the NSA, which is tasked with eavesdropping on foreign communications and protecting U.S. government communications.

"Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA," BellSouth said in a statement.

President Bush, who did not confirm or deny the USA Today report, said last week that intelligence activities he has authorized were legal and the government was not rifling through Americans' personal lives or eavesdropping on domestic calls without court approval.

Still, a Democrat commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission called for the agency to investigate whether BellSouth and the two largest U.S. telephone companies broke the law by reportedly disclosing consumers' calling records to the NSA.

"The FCC should initiate an inquiry into whether the phone companies' involvement violated Section 222 or any other provisions of the Communications Act," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC.

Section 222 of the 1934 Communications Act requires telecommunications carriers to protect the confidentiality of certain consumer call information, "except as required by law" or when the customer approves its release.

A spokesman for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican who sets the agency's agenda, declined to comment on Copp's request.

Verizon declined to comment beyond a statement issued last week that said the company does not provide any government agency with unfettered access to customer records.

"If and when AT&T is asked by government agencies for help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions," said AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris.

Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications, also sent a letter to Martin on Monday asking whether the agency would investigate possible breaches of customer privacy.

"We are reviewing it carefully and will respond accordingly," FCC spokesman David Fiske said of Markey's letter.

The FCC has been looking into whether telecommunications companies have adequate safeguards to protect consumers' telephone records amid instances where Internet sites have offered to provide those records for a fee.

Story Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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