Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Telcoms Say They Didn't Hand Over Call Records, But Something's Not Adding Up

Verizon and BellSouth's flat denials that they provided any customer information to the NSA -- several days after publication of the USA Today article that reported all of the major telcos except Qwest had turned over all of their customers' calling records to the NSA -- made me wonder: Did the Bush administration ask the companies to lie and give them assurances they would not be prosecuted for doing so?

Judd at Think Progress had the same thought. He writes today that a presidential memorandum issued on May 5 authorized John Negroponte to issue directives with regard to securities law:

In recent days, AT&T, Bell South and Verizon have all issued statements denying that they've handed over phone records to the NSA, as reported by USA today.

There are three possibilities:

1) The USA Today story is inaccurate;

2) The telcos left enough wiggle room in the statements that both the USA Today story and their statements are accurate; or

3) The statements from the telcos are inaccurate.

Ordinarily, a company that conceals their transactions and activities from the public would violate securities law. But a presidential memorandum signed by the President on May 5 allows the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, to authorize a company to conceal activities related to national security. (See 15 U.S.C. 78m(b)(3)(A))

There is no evidence that this executive order has been used by John Negroponte with respect to the telcos. Of course, if it was used, we wouldn't know about it.

Of course, authorization to lie would have come only after the USA Today story broke -- which would explain the fact that Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T did not deny the allegations when contacted by USA Today before publication.

Greg Sargent (linked from Judd's post) mentions this possibility, but he still thinks something about the telcoms' stories doesn't add up:

Take a close look at the post-story denials. Verizon said that since "the NSA program" is "highly-classified," the company "cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to it." But it also says the assertion that Verizon "entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data" is "false." Those seem to contradict each other, don't they?

Either Verizon has some sort of arrangement with the NSA or it doesn't. Did the company get approached by the NSA and decide not to participate, but wanted to keep what they'd learned secret? They seem to say they weren't approached. The statement says "Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide" the records from "any" of its businesses. So if Verizon doesn't have any relationship to the NSA or the program, there would have been nothing about itself that it would need to keep classified. They would have been perfectly free to deny the story before publication. They could have said, "Verizon has no relationship to such a program, should one exist." But they didn't. Why? More to the point, why isn't Verizon now perfectly free to fully deny its own non-relationship to the program, rather than refuse to confirm or deny any relationship, as it has done?

Verizon has done neither of these. From that I think we can infer that the company does have some sort of relationship to the program. What about Bellsouth?

The Bellsouth post-story denials are a bit more troubling for defenders of the NSA/phone records story. Its company spokesman said, "From the review we conducted, we cannot establish any link between BellSouth and the NSA." He also said, "We are not providing any information to the NSA, period." That's a flat statement that there's no relationship whatsoever. So again, there was nothing about itself to keep classified. So why didn't the company deny it initially?

One possibility: Buried in the USA Today story about Bellsouth's denial is this: "The night before the story was published, USA TODAY described the story in detail to Bellsouth, and the company did not challenge the newspaper's account." I have to say that "the night before" seems to be awfully short notice for a story of this magnitude. It's possible the company simply didn't have enough time to do the requisite internal check, though it's also quite possible that a few calls to the company's top execs would have sufficed, and there would have been enough time for that.

Bottom line: The Bellsouth denial remains somewhat troubling, but nonetheless inconclusive. Meanwhile, we can reasonably assume -- based on Verizon's own statements -- that Verizon has some sort of relationship with the NSA. Otherwise, as I said, they'd have nothing to keep secret.

Undoubtedly we'll hear more denials, allegations, theories, and calls for investigations in the coming days and weeks, but most important to keep in mind is that Bush and his cronies will move heaven and earth to keep the most damning evidence hidden behind a wall of lies and intimidation. It will take high levels of persistence, resourcefulness, and courage to overcome that. I know the blogosphere is up to that job, but I don't think that Congress is.

No comments: