FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Phone Company is Hiding Behind Federal Government “State Secrets” Privilege, ACLU Charges
PORTLAND, ME -- In a 44-page response to the Maine Public Utilities Commission today, Verizon refused to confirm or deny cooperation in the illegal National Security Agency program, arguing that the Public Utilities Commission lacks the authority to investigate whether Verizon has provided NSA access to its customer records and its switching machines in Maine.
Verizon also invoked a “state secrets” argument that national security concerns preclude disclosure of any information. The state secrets privilege, when properly invoked, permits the government to block disclosure of information that would cause harm to national security. The government has increasingly used this privilege to wrongly dismiss lawsuits that might expose serious wrongdoing and security lapses, the ACLU said.
“We were surprised to see Verizon make the state secrets argument because only the government, not private entities, can assert that privilege,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “Use of the state secrets argument indicates that Verizon lawyers may have worked closely with federal government lawyers in drafting a response to the commission. Both the Public Utilities Commission and Senators Collins and Snowe should proceed with a thorough investigation of Verizon’s actions.”
The Maine Civil Liberties Union, acting as intervenors in a Commission complaint filed by James Cowie on May 8, are seeking a thorough investigation of Verizon. As an intervenor, the MCLU asserts that the organization has a vested interest in the outcome of the proceedings and could be impacted by that outcome. The complaint calls on the Commission to investigate whether Verizon has allowed the NSA access to customer e-mail and phone communications. The complaint also questions whether circuits have been installed in any Verizon facilities within Maine to facilitate NSA surveillance and whether the records of Maine residents have been included in any datamining samples provided to the NSA.
On May 15, in response to the complaint, the Public Utilities Commission issued a request that Verizon “address, in its response to the complaint, the extent to which the actions alleged in the complaint and in the USA Today article implicate the privacy rights of Maine telephone service subscribers described by 35-A M.R.S.A. § 7101-A.”
“I’m dumbfounded that this corporation is trying to hide behind the federal government’s state secrets privilege,” said James Cowie, a MCLU member and lead complainant. “Verizon’s response reads like it came from the government, instead of our local telephone company. I hope Senators Snowe and Collins would be concerned about this as well.”
News reports indicate that at least three telecommunications companies -- Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T -- have complied with requests from the NSA to turn over the calling records of millions of customers across the nation. Verizon subsequently issued a narrowly tailored denial of participation. Verizon’s response to the Commission today appears to undercut its earlier statements because it does not clearly deny participation in the program, the ACLU said.
“Mainers deserve to know if calls are being monitored by the government,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, “No one – not the federal government and not Verizon – is above the law.”
Congress also has the authority to investigate the National Security Agency surveillance program. To date, however, neither Senator Collins nor Senator Snowe have called for such an investigation.
Verizon's response is online at: www.aclu.org/safefree/nsaspying/25614lgl20060519.html