NEW YORK — Verizon Communications Inc. says it did not give the government records of millions of phone calls, joining fellow phone company BellSouth in disputing key assertions in a USA Today article.
The denials leave open the possibility that the National Security Agency requested customer calling data from long-distance companies like AT&T, Sprint and MCI in 2001, but not from companies that were mainly local phone companies, such as Verizon.
Verizon has not provided customer call data to the NSA, nor had it been asked to do so, the company said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.
The statement came a day after Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp. issued a similar denial.
“One of the most glaring and repeated falsehoods in the media reporting is the assertion that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Verizon was approached by NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers’ domestic calls,” the statement read.
Verizon’s denial did not apply to MCI, which Verizon acquired in January this year. In an earlier statement, Verizon said it is in the process of ensuring that its policies are put in place in the former MCI business.
Long-distance companies collect billing data on long-distance calls placed by local-service customers of BellSouth, Verizon, and other local phone companies. The major phone companies also sell long distance under their own brands.
A story in USA Today last Thursday said Verizon, AT&T Inc. and BellSouth had complied with an NSA request for tens of millions of customer phone records after the 2001 terror attacks. The report sparked a national debate on federal surveillance tactics.
The newspaper story cited anonymous sources “with direct knowledge of the arrangement.”
“Sources told us that BellSouth and Verizon records are included in the database,” USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson said.
“We’re confident in our coverage of the phone database story,” Anderson added, “but we won’t summarily dismiss BellSouth’s and Verizon’s denials without taking a closer look.”Video: Gonzales on phone records
An attorney for the former chief executive of Qwest Communications International Inc., on Friday lent support to USA Today’s story. He said the Denver company had been approached by the government, but had denied the request for phone records because it appeared to violate privacy law.
Qwest is a regional phone company with a substantial long-distance business. It was not clear if the government’s request applied only to Qwest’s long-distance business.
Verizon’s statement suggested that USA Today may have erred in not drawing a distinction between long-distance and local telephone calls.
“Phone companies do not even make records of local calls in most cases because the vast majority of customers are not billed per call for local calls,” Verizon said.
Three smaller phone companies, with mainly local business, contacted by The Associated Press on Tuesday also denied being approached by the NSA. Representatives at Alltel Corp., Citizens Communications Co. and CenturyTel Inc. all said they had no knowledge of NSA requests to their companies.
The denials by Verizon and BellSouth leave AT&T as the sole company named in the USA Today article that hasn’t denied involvement. On Thursday, San Antonio-based AT&T said it had “an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare,” but said it would assist only as allowed within the law.
AT&T spokesman Michael Coe said Tuesday the company had no further comment.
AT&T Inc. was formed last year when regional phone company SBC Communications Inc. bought AT&T Corp., the long-distance and corporate carrier, and adopted its name.
The other major long-distance company, Sprint Nextel Corp., has issued a statement similar to AT&T’s.
President Bush insisted Tuesday that the government does not listen to domestic telephone conversations among ordinary Americans. But he declined to specifically discuss the compiling of phone records, or whether that would amount to an invasion of privacy.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Tuesday said that at least two of the chief judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves warrants for intelligence surveillance, had been informed since 2001 of White House-approved National Security Agency monitoring operations, and had not raised objections.
On Monday, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission said the FCC should investigate whether the companies violated federal communications law.
BellSouth, Verizon and AT&T are facing a number of lawsuits by customers who allege violations of their privacy, including one in New York that seeks $200 billion in damages.
In April, an Internet advocacy group sued AT&T, accusing it of providing complete access to all communications on its network to the NSA.
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