The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Area lawmakers call for information on alleged NSA program; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

If the phone records of hundreds of millions of American citizens were handed over to the National Security Agency without a warrant, they didn’t get any help from a local telecommunications provider.

Meanwhile, two local congressman say they want more information about reports that the NSA is using the information to create a database.

According to a story published Thursday in USA Today, three major telecommunications companies — AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth — have voluntarily given basic information about all their domestic phone calls to the NSA.

The story further alleges that the spy agency is trying to build a database of all phone calls placed in the United States. While the contents of the calls are not monitored, the numbers called are, and are used for data mining purposes in the effort to stop terrorism, the newspaper says.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, who represents a district stretching from Strasburg to Roanoke, said more information is needed about just what transpired between the spy agency and phone companies.

“Congressman Goodlatte is not a member of the House Intelligence Committee so he was not briefed by the White House,” spokeswoman Kathryn Rexrode said via e-mail.

“But [Goodlatte] believes that it is important to establish what the facts are and what information has been made available by the phone companies,” she said.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, said press accounts were the first he’d heard of the program, but that he was doing his best to get more information from the Bush administration.

“We have a call in now to the assistant attorney general,” Wolf said. “We’re going to ask them about it.”

More information may be available today.

President Bush didn’t address the alleged data collection in a statement on Thursday, but did say that the administration is making every effort to safeguard privacy.

“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said. “Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates.”

U.S. Senate candidate James Webb called the alleged program a “gross abuse and overreach” by the Bush administration.

Webb, a former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, is seeking the Democratic nod to run against U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., this fall. Webb is opposed in next month’s primary by Northern Virginia businessman Harris Miller.

“I believe we need a politically neutral panel with impeccable credentials and the appropriate security clearance to examine these activities and report their findings back to the American people,” Webb told reporters in an e-mail.

None of the three companies would comment Thursday, according to wire service accounts, but did say that their cooperation with government was legal.

Locally, Verizon provides telephone service to Winchester, large portions of Frederick and Clarke counties and a small area in northern Warren County.

A local telecom provider said Thursday that they’ve had no dealings with NSA — and won’t, without a court order.

David Ferguson, executive vice president for customer service at Shentel, said while big companies may have been asked to cooperate by the NSA, Shentel hasn’t heard anything from the spy agency.

“We haven’t had any discussions at all” with the NSA, he said. Even if the agency had asked, Shentel wouldn’t have complied.

“Our policy is not to release any customer information without appropriate court orders,” he said.

Shentel provides telephone, cable television and Internet access to thousands of homes from Winchester to Harrisonburg.

The kind of data alleged to have been collected and given to NSA is the same type of information used for billing. Generally, a company that can bill for the phone call has access to it.

“We collect the local call information” for calls placed inside their own network, Ferguson said. But “if you’re placing a long distance call … your long distance carrier has the ability to collect that information in order to bill you.”

Ferguson reiterated that Shentel shares no information — be it phone records or Internet traffic — without a warrant.

“Even that [call] information is privileged information, and it’s not information we would release to any entity without the proper court orders,” he said.

Ferguson said he was surprised by reports that that national companies were handing over information. He’s also the president of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association, and Thursday’s reports were the first he’s heard of it.

“It has not come up as an issue in our association, as well,” he said. “I’m at a loss to understand what exactly is transpiring.”