WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Verizon Communications says it has provided federal, state and local law enforcement agencies tens of thousands of communication and business records relating to customers based on emergency requests without a court order or administrative subpoena.
Rep. Edward Markey: "There is an atmosphere of ambiguity which clouds this entire area."
In an October 12 letter to members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a senior Verizon official says that from 2005 through this September there were 63,700 such requests, and of those, 720 came from federal authorities.
The company refused to discuss the content of those requests outside the several examples provided in the letter.
The letter came in response to a request from the panel seeking information from telecommunication firms about the extent of their cooperation with government entities, especially concerning the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program that started weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"There is an atmosphere of ambiguity which clouds this entire area," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, said in an interview with CNN. "Congress needs to know. The American people need to know what the Bush administration is doing in the name of the American people to its own citizens. And right now we don't know the answers."
AT&T and Qwest Communications International also submitted information to the committee, but Verizon's response was the most detailed. It said that from 2005 through September it received almost 240,000 requests from government agencies.
The information authorities sought often came along with a warrant from the classified intelligence court authorizing a wiretap or through an administrative subpoena, for example, seeking an Internet address.
The emergency requests, however, were some of the more surprising data provided. Some of the emergency situations Verizon said it assisted in included locating the Internet address of a child predator who had abducted a 13-year-old girl (who was then found due to that information) and helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents track down a man using a webcam to broadcast the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old boy.
In its letter to Congress, Verizon said that the emergency requests were legal and that private companies do not have "all the information necessary to completely assess the propriety of the government's actions."
"Placing the onus on the provider to determine whether the government is acting within the scope of its authority would inevitably slow lawful efforts to protect the public. When an emergency situation arises, prompt assistance is often needed," wrote Randal Milch, Verizon's senior vice president and general counsel.
The extent of cooperation between the nation's telecommunication firms and the government, especially in the counterterrorism arena, has been of intense interest to civil liberties advocates as well as members of Congress.
In May 2006, USA Today reported the National Security Agency had been collecting the records of tens of millions of customers from various companies. A former Qwest executive has said he decided not to participate in that program because of its questionable legality.
Verizon, AT&T and Qwest are all facing lawsuits about their possible participation in various government efforts and therefore have said they cannot comment.
The Justice Department has invoked the "state secrets" privilege to prevent the firms from confirming or denying possible involvement in specific intelligence operations.
Wayne Watts, AT&T's senior executive vice president and general counsel, wrote, "Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities. ... Disputes of this kind need to be resolved through accommodation between the two political branches of government."
Verizon, which has about 30 million phone and 70 million wireless subscribers, also disclosed it had received subpoenas for more detailed information about whom a person under investigation had called.
Not only had authorities sought information about the person called but wanted to know whom, in turn, that person then communicated with -- a "calling circle" or "community of interest."
The company said it did not provide that information because it doesn't keep such records. Government officials have said there was a standard that had to be met before making that type of request.
However, in light of an ongoing Justice Department audit concerning abuses by the FBI of administrative subpoenas and misreporting of their use, the bureau has said it has temporarily stopped asking for "community of interest" data.
"It is important to emphasize that it is no longer being used pending the development of an appropriate oversight and approval policy, was used infrequently, and was never used for e-mail communications," FBI spokesman Mike Kortan told CNN last month. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Carol Cratty contributed to this article.
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