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Yahoo on NSA surveillance: No comment

California politician tries to get Yahoo's lawyer to say whether company is cooperating with a domestic spying program.

Under cross-examination during a congressional hearing, Yahoo's top lawyer refused on Wednesday to say whether the company opens its records for government surveillance without a court order.

Michael Callahan, Yahoo's senior vice president and general counsel, declined five times to answer that question from Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who was probing whether the Internet company had cooperated with the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance efforts.

Michael Callahan
Michael Callahan

"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment," said Callahan, who was testifying under oath. He added that Yahoo would "only turn over information if it's required by law."

But Callahan refused to say whether a demand from the NSA--not backed by a court order--qualifies as required by law.

No law or regulation prohibits Yahoo from answering the question. In a survey published last week by CNET News.com, companies as varied as BellSouth, Comcast, EarthLink and T-Mobile answered in the negative. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, has posed similar questions to those companies, and AT&T has been sued for allegedly turning information over to the NSA in violation of privacy laws.

Sherman, who represents the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, is a Harvard Law graduate who was known as a stickler for detail while a lawyer in private practice. He's been critical of the NSA surveillance program, and said last week that President Bush's recent claims about terrorists planning to attack a Los Angeles skyscraper were a political stunt.

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Video: Can the NSA look at your e-mail?
During a House hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., asks Yahoo general counsel Michael Callahan if the NSA can access the e-mail of private American citizens.

Below is a transcript, edited for clarity, of Wednesday's exchange that took place during a House of Representatives hearing about China and the Internet.

Rep. Brad Sherman: Let's say you get a call from the NSA saying they want you to give them a copy of all my e-mails. Can I rely on your privacy policy that you're not going to give those e-mails to the NSA unless you get a court order?

Yahoo General Counsel Michael Callahan: We would only disclose information in compliance with law and our privacy policy.

Sherman: Does that include a court order or letter from the NSA?

Callahan: I wouldn't be able to comment.

Sherman: The attorney general says the executive branch, without any OK from either of the other two branches, has the right to read everything you have in your files about me. You might very well agree?

Callahan: It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment.

Sherman: How can I be a Yahoo user?... If you tell me you'll decide later if a sheriff in some obscure county (that I've never visited can obtain access to my files based on a simple request?)

Callahan: We only turn over information if it's required by law.

Sherman: An investigation from some county that I've never been to?

Callahan: If we were served with proper legal process, we would have to give it.

Sherman: Sir, you're assuming the answer to the question and pretending that's an answer. I'm asking you, as the chief lawyer from Yahoo, is e-mail from some sheriff...is that a requirement that you would adhere to or would you fight it in court?

Callahan: That is not something we would provide.

Sherman: How about if it came from the NSA?

Callahan: (I can't comment on that.)