Ma Bell could become simply a slave for Big Brother under a little noted section of important foreign intelligence surveillance legislation being considered by Congress.
At issue is basic privacy of telephone communications. A business and service for which American Telephone & Telegraph Co. has had a virtual nationwide monopoly over the past century.
Despite cases in recent years that have involved sometimes illegal telephone wiretapping, AT&T long has emphasized privacy as "a basic concept" of its business.
"We believe our customers have an inherent right to use the telephone with the same privacy they enjoy when talking face to face," states company policy. AT&T, the nation's largest private employer, also emphasizes to its workers that a condition of employment is the safeguarding of privacy.
An initial break in AT&T's non-cooperation with wiretapping came during World War II when President Roosevelt authorized the government to seek limited telephone company assistance.
The Federal Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, amended in 1971, continued the practice of permitting courts to direct AT&T or its subsidiaries (such as Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. (locally) to provide assistance to officers of the law.
Although there may be a common misconception about this telephone company role, the current law does not make AT&-T or any independent provider of telecommunications services an active participant in bugging.
According to ATT&T and government officials, the telephone company is not supposed to place actual taps or provide company workers to do the job. Incoming calls may not be traced by the telephone company, and no company equipment is to be provided law enforcement agencies.
Congress should determine how to balance privacy of communications and "the requirements of national security," according to William Caming, an AT&T lawyer who specializes in security problems.
Thus, under current law, what the Bell System does under court order is the following: It provides information to government agents or police about the location of cable or telephone connections of specific lines approved for interception and, when requested, it rents a private line connection from the intercepted line to a government office where a listening post may be located.
Because wiretapping applications and orders are not made public by the courts. AT&T may not disclose the existence or content of such orders without prior court approval.
Despite these goals, the policy has not always followed. In a federal court deposition in 1975, a former C&P executive testified that he responded to hundreds of oral FBI requests under President Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon by having phone company workers make the actual connections for taps - 100 at any one time, some of which became entangled in Watergate-era suits. C&P also provided facilities and equipment, according to the former company employe. But company officials have said the degree of cooperation was overstated and that the FBI was provided only the limited assistance approved since the early 1940s.
Government law enforcement officials apparently have not been happy with the limited AT&T help, which requires the government to employ persons knowledgeable in telephone interconnections as well as surveillance.
In the wake of Watergate, it has been difficult to find company employes who would violate AT&T policy. And some members of Congress have been convinced that telephone companies should be ordered to play a more active role.
As a result, provisions have been added to the proposed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would allow courts and federal officials to require that AT&T become the wiretapper of the future.
Under a section of the proposed legislation, already passed by the Senate and now before a House subcommit-low courts and federal officials to required to supply "any and all information, facilities, or technical asssitance necessary to accomplish the electronic suveillance in such manner as will protect its secrecy . . ."
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Another section in the proposed House bill describes court orders as "specifying the information, facilities, or technical assistance required."
Telephone companies are not alone in being ordered to cooperate with government wiretapping under the proposed legislation. Specifically named as required to obey a court tapping order are communications firms, landlords, custodians and other "specified" persons who must "furnish the applicant forthwith any and all information, facilities, or technical assistance. . ."
One program with the legislation is that intelligence and judiciary committees on both sides of Capitol Hill have jurisdiction. According to Senate committees' interpretations, the new legislation would not change the historic, limited cooperation to be required of telephone companies.
There were some secret discussions in that committee about not including the Senate language because "intelligence agencies want to force the telephone companies to give more assistance . . . to use telephone equipment, hook in at the central office rather than doing it themselves," Lehman said, indicating that the House legislation permits a wider wiretapping role for Bell.