Your friendly phone company may have been listening to your calls.

Three top American telephone carriers -- Verizon, AT&T and Qwest -- have set what some believe may be an alarming precedent in refusing to turn over information on their wiretapping and snooping programs to the U.S. Congress.

A Congressional panel is investigating whether citizens' rights to privacy and personal freedoms were violated by executive branch mandated snooping programs, which allegedly monitor users' email and phone calls.

The phone companies claim they want to release the information, but can't.  They say that other branches of the government are preventing them from releasing the information about the Bush administration's spy programs to Congress.

AT&T Inc. General Counsel Wayne Watts wrote a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee stating, "Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities."

Congress had request three specific pieces of information.  The first was what information the carriers had turned over to government organizations without warrant.  The second question was whether they were compensated for any such occurrences.  The third question was whether they had installed any equipment for the express purpose of intercepting user emails or calls.

The three major carriers all claimed they were not at liberty to discuss any of these details.  All three carriers did submit limited reports to Congress, which did not contain any of the requested information.

Representative Ed Markey, D. Massachusetts, leads the telecommunications subcommittee and is among the congressional lawmakers frustrated by the carriers' refusal and the executive branch's secrecy.  He voiced his frustration in a public statement. "The water is as murky as ever on this issue, and it's past time for the administration to come clean."

AT&T stated that the Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, invoked the state secrets privilege to block the information request.  Qwest and Verizon say that the Justice Department is blocking the request.

Scott Stanzel, Whitehouse spokesman declined comment, as did Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd.

Ross Feinstein, McConnell's spokesman, defended his actions stating that the director had the power to oversee all intelligence activities, as per the 1947 National Security Act.

Verizon did provide Congress with one piece of information.  It said that the Bush administration asked it to find information on the "calling circle" for specific telephone numbers, without warrant.  Verizon claims to have refused this request as it states that it does not have the capabilities to gain such information.

Michael McConnell has tried to defend these carriers and said that they should be given immunity from lawsuits and due process.

Currently AT&T and Verizon are the target of suits for providing customer information to the government.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats' No. 2 Senate leader, has vowed to fight giving these carriers immunity from due process of the law.

The Congressional inquiries follow a July temporary measure which allows spy agencies to continue intercepting, without a court warrant, phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists.  The measure, named the "Protect America Act of 2007" was covered here at DailyTech.

The Congress is researching the issue as it is mulling over new surveillance legislation.

House democrats are proposing legislation named the "RESTORE Act", which would perpetuate certain warrantless surveillance for antiterrorism purposes, but would impose clear limitations to the scope of the powers and a rigid process to be followed.  House republicans are largely opposed to this measure as they would prefer more open ended powers and freedom from oversight.

The issue of spying is a thorny one.  Phone companies are uncomfortable with their customers finding out that they have been spied upon.  The government is uncomfortable with its citizens finding out they are being spied upon.  Yet, for better or worse, the Bush administration is pushing for continued surveillance privileges as the Congress tries to limit and control these privileges.

"We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs
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