KAI RYSSDAL: Big telecommunications companies have all kinds of government contracts.The Feds need phones too, after all. But we learned today the government's bought the records of billions of phone calls Americans made over the past four-and-a-half years. Looking for terrorists. The story was in USA Today. It, and some scathing comments from Congress, brought President Bush to the podium this morning.
RYSSDAL: There's been a whole lot of "No comment" today from other parts of the government. And from some phone companies, too. But at least one of them just said No when Uncle Sam came calling. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale takes it from there.
JOHN DIMSDALE: AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth today would not confirm their cooperation with the NSA surveillance program. Each issued a statement saying they always protect the privacy of their 200 million customers, and have acted within the law.
But Qwest Communications, the smallest of the four Bell companies, with just 14 million customers in western states, decided not to turn over its call records.
Privacy advocates cite several laws that require court orders before the government can gain access to phone call records. The fines for unauthorized disclosure are on a per-case basis. And they could add up quickly when the number of disclosed calls are in the billions. Presumably, the lawyers for these companies vetted the government's request.
The three cooperating companies reportedly signed federal contracts to supply the information. And that irks David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
DAVID SOBEL: It would be one thing if a claim was made that in the name of national security, the government was exercising its subpoena power to demand this information. But if it was merely a commercial transaction, where government was buying the material as if the info was merely a commodity, there's even less of a justification for that kind of disclosure.
Qwest isn't commenting, but the USA Today report said the company had to resist some heavy pressure from the government, even questions about its patriotism or threats to future work with the government.
Phil Weiser, a telecommunications law professor at the University of Colorado calls Qwest's decision "gutsy."
PHIL WEISER: What it says is Qwest is a different sort of company and will think for itself and will take somewhat more innovative and unique stands.
Some other examples of Qwest's independence: Weiser says the company hasna€™t threatened to stop its customers from using the Internet for phone calls. And, unlike other companies, it sells its DSL as a standalone high-speed service.
In Washington, Ia€™m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.