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NSA phone spying controversy rages on

John Dimsdale May 17, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Confirmation hearings start tomorrow for Michael Hayden, the President’s nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency. The timing is probably just coincidental, but this afternoon the National Security Agency began briefing members of the Intelligence Committees about its surveillance program. The one we learned about last week — phone companies selling customer records to the government. Verizon and Bell South have denied it outright. Today we called AT&T to see what they had to say.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Princeton New Jersey attorney Bruce Afran says the Telecommunications Act provides for a minimum $1,000 fine for each warrantless disclosure of phone-call information. On behalf of the 200 million customers of AT&T, Bell South and Verizon, Afran and his colleague Carl Mayer are asking for damages of $200 billion.

BRUCE AFRAN: One of the purposes of this case is to, quite frankly, hold the threat of financial destruction over the heads of the phone companies to make them abandon this policy of cooperating with warrantless searches by the government.

The companies deny they turned over all their phone records to the NSA, but judging from their artfully parsed statements, telecom analyst Scott Cleland sees some cooperation with the government.

SCOTT CLELAND: What I think people got wrong with the original reporting, was that this was local phone companies tracking local phone calls. What is clear now is they were tracking long distance calls.

Still, University of Colorado telecom law professor Phillip Weiser thinks the lawsuit is a long shot.

PHILLIP WEISER: The phone companies are likely to say they were requested by the government and they presumed the government was acting lawfully and they’re entitled to that protection because we generally want companies to comply with government requests.

Weiser says it’ll be hard to prove injury in this case. Lawyer Bruce Afran disagrees.

AFRAN: Many, many people are now afraid of their government and afraid of their phone companies. That’s the real injury that’s caused here.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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