By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
BellSouth Corp. yesterday denied it gave customer calling records to the National Security Agency en masse, contradicting a newspaper report that said it did so along with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to help the government track suspected terrorists.
"As a result of media reports that BellSouth provided massive amounts of customer calling information under a contract with the NSA, the company conducted an internal review to determine the facts," the country's third-largest telephone company said in a statement.
"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," the Atlanta company added.
USA Today reported on Thursday that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, the country's three largest telephone providers, had provided the NSA with detailed calling records on tens of millions of their customers.
The newspaper said the three companies were working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in an effort to identify and track terrorists.
"We do not believe that any final review will turn up anything different from what we have currently found," said BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher, adding, "There is no link between the NSA and BellSouth that we can find in what we feel is a very exhaustive review."
AT&T and Verizon have both declined to confirm or deny the USA Today report, saying they do not comment on national security matters. On Friday, Verizon said it "does not, and will not, provide any government agency unfettered access to our customer records or provide information to the government under circumstances that would allow a fishing expedition."
Messages left with USA Today spokespeople were not immediately returned. The USA Today report provoked sharp debate on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers defended the effort, saying it was needed to root out terrorists. Others demanded answers about what they said appeared to be a domestic spying operation. The newspaper report said the program involved only an analysis of calling records, not the contents of phone conversations.
The White House has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a program, and last week President Bush said: "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates."
The USA Today report has triggered lawsuits against the major phone companies. The Mason Law Firm PC yesterday said it had filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth customers, arguing that their privacy was violated and seeking at least $1,000 per person whose information was compromised.