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5/17/2006
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Phone Companies Fight Back Against Spy Accusations

Internal AT&T documents are in, but a closed hearing is out. That's what a judge has ruled so far in the class-action lawsuit filed against AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A judge ruled Wednesday that internal AT&T documents can be used in a case accusing AT&T of helping the National Security Agency spy on Americans, but the documents will remain sealed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing AT&T in a class action lawsuit. EFF claims that the phone company illegally provided Internet and phone records to the NSA. The lawsuit is one of several legal actions alleging that major telecommunications companies violated privacy laws to help with illegal surveillance.

The NSA and President George W. Bush claim the surveillance is legal, while BellSouth and Verizon deny involvement. The U.S. Department of Justice has intervened, calling for the dismissal of EFF's case against Verizon because of security reasons.

AT&T argued that internal documents " including a declaration from a former AT&T employee who claims he split cables so duplicate telecommunications data could be fed to the NSA " should not be used in the case. The company also argued that Wednesday's hearing should be closed to the public.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker denied the request for a closed hearing and decided that the documents can be used in the case. He also instructed the telephone company to work with EFF on redacting portions of the sealed documents so the remainder can be publicly disclosed.

Meanwhile, the issue took the spotlight on Capitol Hill, while BellSouth and Verizon denied reports that they gave domestic records to the NSA for data mining.

Verizon issued a statement refuting reports in USA Today that claimed it helped NSA domestic data-mining efforts by providing customer records and call data.

"As the President has made clear, the NSA program he acknowledged authorizing against al-Qaeda is highly classified. Verizon cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to it. That said, media reports made claims about Verizon that are simply false. One of the most glaring and repeated falsehoods in the media reporting is the assertion that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Verizon was approached by NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers' domestic calls. This is false."

"Contrary to media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide, customer phone records from any of these businesses, or any call data from those records. None of the companies " wireless or wireline " provided customer records or call data.

The statement did not comment on possible involvement in the NSA's surveillance of international calls and did not address whether the company allowed NSA to monitor communications directly.

BellSouth denied knowledge of a government database and any knowledge that its customer information is contained in such a database.

USA Today stood by its story, which claimed that BellSouth, AT&T and Verizon assisted the government with information for secret surveillance. The newspaper reported that 51 percent of Americans disapprove of domestic surveillance and 43 percent approve. A Newsweek poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the NSA database surveillance program goes too far in invading people's privacy.

The issue is taking center stage in Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination as CIA director. Hayden led the NSA while the surveillance was taking place.

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