The Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is joining the national organization in launching a nationwide initiative to end illegal government spying by the National Security Agency.
Responding to reports that phone companies are turning over private details about Americans' telephone calls to the National Security Agency, the ACLU of Oregon and ACLU affiliates in 19 other states have filed complaints with public utility commissions or sent letters to state attorneys general and other officials demanding investigations into whether local telecommunications companies allowed the National Security Agency to spy on their customers.
ACLU of Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque said his organization has both filed a formal complaint with the Oregon Public Utility Commission and requested Attorney General Hardy Myers to investigate the alleged illegal invasions of telephone customer privacy in Oregon.
"It's essential for the officials who enforce Oregon's consumer privacy laws and regulations to investigate whether the rights of Oregonians have been violated and, if so, to take all necessary steps to put a stop to it," Fidanque said.
"We do not seek to obstruct legitimate law enforcement activities, but we are determined to stand up for the fundamental privacy and due process rights of people whose telephone records may have been divulged without a warrant, other legal process, notice or consent."
The national ACLU also sent a letter to the Federal CommunicationsCommission urging the agency to reconsider its refusal to investigate reports that at least three major telecommunications companies — AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon — cooperated with the National Security Agency to collect calling information and call patterns on every American.
In its letter, the ACLU refuted the agency's assertion that the classified nature of National Security Agency activities render it "unable" to investigate potential wrongdoing. The ACLU noted that the government is publicly defending the program, so there is no way that all the details about it are "state secrets" or involve classified information. The letter also pointed out that the government has a recent history of overclassifying information and conveniently claiming that any evidence of embarrassing or illegal actions is a "state secret."
The ACLU of Oregon complaint asks the Oregon Public Utility Commission to investigate whether the three largest telephone companies providing local service in Oregon — Verizon, Sprint or Qwest — participated in any illegalNational Security Agency telephone surveillance programs, and if so, to order them to cease such activities.
"If the government suspected particular individuals of wrongdoing, it could have legally obtained these types of records," Fidanque said. "But dragnet searches of phone records are not only illegal, they add hay to the haystack and make it even less likely officials will be able to prevent future terrorist acts. The Public Utility Commission and the attorney general should make it clear that no one — including large phone companies — is above the law."
Verizon has issued a partial denial to the news media reports about its involvement that implied that its MCI subsidiary might be involved. Sprint has posted a notice on its Web site stating that it is "not discussing these matters." An attorney for Qwest's former chief executive officer, Joseph Nacchio told the New York Times that Nacchio rejected the National Security Agency's request for its customers' call records prior to his departure from the company in 2002. However, a current Qwest spokesperson refused to confirm or deny whether the company has participated in the National Security Agency program.
In addition to the ACLU of Oregon, actions were filed by ACLU affiliates in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. Other ACLU affiliates are expected to file additional letters and complaints in the coming weeks.
"We cannot sit by while the government and the phone companies collude in this massive, illegal and fundamentally un-American invasion of our privacy," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "And unfortunately, we cannot wait for Congress to act. The ACLU is mobilizing its members and supporters nationwide to demand investigations into this shocking breach of trust. And we are asking the FCC to use its authority to uncover the facts about how far the president's illegal spying has gone. The American people want answers."
As part of its nationwide campaign, the ACLU ran full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other major daily newspapers, with the headline: "If You've Used a Telephone in the Last Five Years, Read This." The advertisement provided a link to www.aclu.org/dontspy, where individuals can add their names to the public record in the ACLU's complaints with public utility commissions and send e-mails to the Federal Comm-unications Commission urging that it investigate the matter.
"We are seeking to create the perfect storm to end illegal National Security Agency spying,"said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program.
WhentheNational Security Agency spying program initially was uncovered last December, the ACLU was one of the first organizations to bring a legal challenge, acting on behalf of a prominent and politically diverse group of journalists, scholars and lawyers. That challenge will be heard before Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit on Monday, June 12; it will be the first-ever hearing on the legality of National Security Agency spying since the program's existence was disclosed.
More information and a copy of the ACLU of Oregon complaint are online at www.aclu-or.org. More information on the case is online at www.aclu.org/nsaspying
The ACLU's letter to the Federal Communications Committee, the affiliate letters, the full-page advertisement and other background is online at www.aclu.org/dontspy.