Washington— Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, citing secrecy laws governing classified information, has now declined to investigate allegations that AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. have a contract to provide phone records to the National Security Agency as part of an anti-terrorism program.
Martin disclosed his decision in a letter Monday to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who called for an FCC investigation after USA Today reported May 11 on NSA’s ties to the major phone companies. BellSouth and Verizon have denied elements of the USA Today article, and BellSouth has asked for a retraction.
“I know that all members of this [FCC] take very seriously our charge to faithfully implement the nation’s law, including our authority to investigate potential violations of the Communications Act. In this case, however, the classified nature of the NSA’s activities makes us unable to investigate the alleged violations discussed in your letter at this time,” Martin said in a three-page letter.
By saying “at this time,” Martin left open the possibility that the FCC could investigate later. FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat appointed by President Bush, has called for an investigation.
In a statement, Markey was highly critical of Martin’s position. Markey has alleged that the phone companies likely violated communications privacy laws if they cooperated with the NSA.
“We can’t have a situation where the FCC, charged with enforcing the law, won’t even begin an investigation of apparent violations of the law because it predicts the Administration will road block any investigations citing national security,” Markey said.
Markey, the most senior Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, suggested that Martin’s refusal to probe would benefit the Bush White House politically. Martin was appointed FCC chairman by President Bush.
In his letter, Martin explained that the U.S. government has moved to dismiss a case pending against AT&T over involvement in the NSA program on the basis that exposure of NSA’s activities would “cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
Regarding the sensitivity intelligence data associated with the NSA program, Martin cited court statements by John Negroponte, director of National Intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA. He also cited provisions of the National Security Act of 1959 that bar the FCC from conducting the kind of investigation sought by Markey.