updated 5/16/2006 11:28:21 AM ET 2006-05-16T15:28:21

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telephone industry, should open an investigation into whether the nation’s phone companies broke the law by turning over millions of calling records to the government, an FCC commissioner says.

The National Security Agency has been collecting records of calls made in the U.S. by ordinary Americans as part of its anti-terrorism efforts, according to USA Today. The newspaper story followed reports that the NSA has been conducting eavesdropping on the electronic communications of suspected al-Qaida members and their contacts in the U.S. without warrants.

Commissioner Michael J. Copps’ comments also come as the three phone companies allegedly involved — AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. — face a growing number of lawsuits by consumers. The latest, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, seeks billions of dollars in damages for violation of federal privacy laws.

“There is no doubt that protecting the security of the American people is our government’s No. 1 responsibility,” Copps, a Democrat, said in a statement. “But in a digital age where collecting, distributing and manipulating consumers’ personal information is as easy as a click of a button, the privacy of our citizens must still matter.”

AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. began turning over tens of millions of phone records to the NSA after the spy agency requested the records shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, USA Today reported last week. The paper said the NSA is building a massive call databank to analyze calling patterns.

The telecommunications company Qwest said it refused to cooperate with the NSA after deciding that doing so would violate privacy law.

On Monday, Atlanta-based BellSouth issued a statement that an internal review had “confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA.” Verizon has refused to confirm or deny whether it has participated in the program.

The New York Times reported in December that the NSA was eavesdropping on electronic communications involving suspected al-Qaida members abroad and associates in the U.S. Critics of the program have questioned whether the NSA has stepped outside the law by not seeking court-ordered warrants.

President Bush, while not discussing the details of any NSA programs directed at detecting terrorism plots, has repeatedly assured Americans that the initiatives he authorizes are within the law and the Constitution and are not violating the privacy of ordinary Americans.

When the NSA developed the programs it was under the direction of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, now Bush’s choice to replace Porter Goss as head of the CIA. The eavesdropping program and the phone call databank are likely to be the focus of questions Thursday when the Senate Intelligence Committee begins Hayden’s confirmation hearings.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he wants to gather testimony from phone company representatives about how they work with the NSA.

An FCC investigation, if undertaken, would be the second attempt this year by the government to explore an aspect of an NSA program. The Justice Department sought to investigate the role of its lawyers in the warrantless eavesdropping program, but it ended the inquiry last week because its lawyers were denied security clearances.

Meanwhile, Monday’s lawsuit in Washington asks the court to immediately bar the phone companies from turning over records. The complaint also seeks a penalty of $1,000 for each violation of federal privacy laws, an amount that could reach billions of dollars for turning over tens of millions of records. It mirrors a similar lawsuit filed last week in New York.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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