BellSouth, AT&T added to NSA lawsuit
Intelligence committees to be briefed before CIA confirmation
President Bush speaks about telephone eavesdropping at the White House on Tuesday.
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- BellSouth and AT&T were added to a class-action lawsuit against Verizon Communications that alleges the companies illegally participated in a National Security Agency domestic surveillance program.
The complaint, filed in Manhattan District Court, is asking that the companies pay $200 billion in fines to their 200 million subscribers.
Attorneys Carl Mayer and Bruce Afran said that since the lawsuit was filed Friday they have been overwhelmed with calls from people wanting to join the suit.
"They are violating federal law, which mandates a minimum penalty of $1,000 for every person whose records have been disclosed," Afran said, adding that many who have called his office are "outraged" by the government's and phone companies' actions.
USA Today last week reported that the three telecommunications giants provided the NSA records from billions of domestic phone calls after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Verizon and BellSouth have denied that they provided such information, leaving AT&T as the only company mentioned in the article that hasn't denied the claims. Verizon and BellSouth also denied that the NSA even asked them for the data.
Qwest Communications has issued a statement saying that it was asked to participate in the program but didn't because the program appeared to violate privacy laws.
USA Today reported that the NSA doesn't record or listen to conversations. Rather, the article said, the agency uses the data -- which include numbers, times and locations -- to find patterns that suggest terrorist activity.
That doesn't matter to Afran, who said the disclosure alone of phone records is a flagrant violation of privacy rights, and the phone companies need to be held accountable.
"We intend to make the phone companies understand the financial risks and exposure they have if they do not, No. 1, end this program and, No. 2, find a way to settle it," he said.
President Bush on Tuesday reiterated his assertion that the government is not listening to phone calls to or from ordinary Americans without a court order.
"What I've told the American people is we'll protect them against an al Qaeda attack," Bush said. "I've also been clear about the fact that we do not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval and this government will continue to guard the privacy of the American people.
"But if al Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know, and we want to know why."
Allegations that the telecommunications giants gave call records to the government come on the heels of a December story in The New York Times that revealed the government was eavesdropping without a warrant on some international calls made to or by Americans.
The Foreign Intelligence Security Act requires that the government obtain a court order from a secret FISA court to tap the phones of American citizens inside the country.
On Tuesday, the White House agreed to brief the Senate Intelligence Committee on the domestic wiretap program, the committee's chairman said.
In a prepared statement, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, added that the program will be a "central" topic of discussion in the deliberations over Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to be the next CIA chief.
Hayden was NSA director when the surveillance program was authorized by President Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
"It became apparent that in order to have a fully informed confirmation hearing, all members of my committee needed to know the full width and breadth of the president's program," Roberts said in a written statement. "This issue will be central to the committee's deliberations on Gen. Hayden's nomination and there was no way we could fulfill our collective constitutional responsibilities without that knowledge."
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, said his committee also will be briefed. Hoekstra called the program "a critical tool in keeping this country safe" and said he hopes the briefing will "put an end to the politics surrounding this issue."
Both committees are scheduled to be briefed Wednesday, the day before Hayden's confirmation hearing is to begin.
CNN's Cheryl Bronson and Pam Benson contributed to this report.
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