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Democrats quiz telecom companies about spy program role

A House committee launches an inquiry requesting details from AT&T, Verizon and Qwest on how they've responded to government demands for subscriber records.

More than a year has passed since reports surfaced that certain major U.S. telephone companies had granted government spies access to customer records as part of a Bush administration warrantless wiretapping program. Now a congressional committee has decided to investigate those claims.

The Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters on Tuesday to AT&T, Verizon and Qwest Communications International posing a detailed set of questions about their procedures for supplying records in response to government demands. Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and oversight subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) signed the letters, but their Republican counterparts did not. (They were carbon-copied on the documents.)

"Congress has a duty to determine what occurred and also to examine the difficult position of the phone companies who may have been asked by the government to violate the privacy of their customers without the assurance of liability protections," Dingell said in a statement.

The questions seek information on a variety of topics, including how companies receive and comply with government requests for information, whether they've ever been asked to hand over information without certain court orders, what legal justifications the government has used in its quest for customer data, whether companies have ever been asked to install equipment that sends copies of Internet traffic to third parties, and whether the companies have ever been offered legal immunity by the government in exchange for their efforts.

Verizon and BellSouth, which is now part of AT&T, denied at the time improperly handing over call records, while AT&T did not confirm or deny its participation. Qwest Communications, on the other hand, reportedly said it refused to comply with the National Security Agency's requests because the department did not present a warrant.

Verizon has since been sued by a class of customers claiming the company violated their privacy by turning over their records illegally, but the government has been arguing for the case to be thrown out in the interest of protecting state secrets.

The letters on Tuesday mark one of the few tangible displays of congressional interest in the telecommunications industry angle. Last year, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), who then headed the Senate Judiciary Committee, backed off on by his panel.

It wasn't clear why the House committee waited until now to launch its investigation, although the letter makes reference to what it says is Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell's recent acknowledgment that such a program exists. The Department of Justice, however, argued recently in a court filing in the Verizon suit that McConnell did no such thing in a much-referenced late-August interview with the El Paso Times.

The congressional Democrats also pointed to a March report by the Justice Department's inspector general that found the FBI had abused an investigative tool known as a national security letter, which allows agents, without a court order, to obtain information on Americans from banks, credit card companies, credit bureaus, telephone companies and Internet service providers. The report revealed that telephone companies gave the FBI more information about consumers than they even sought, the congressional letter said.

An AT&T spokesman sent CNET the following response when asked to comment: "AT&T is committed to protecting our customers' privacy. We do not comment on matters of national security."

Update at 2:55 p.m. PDT: A Verizon spokesman said his company "will be responding as best we can to the letter." A Qwest spokesman declined to comment.

Copies of the letters to the companies are available through the committee's Web site.