Thursday, May 25, 2006

Rights group requests wiretapping probe

Rights group requests wiretapping probe
By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union launched a 20-state campaign on Wednesday to stop warrantless eavesdropping by the National Security Agency and prevent telecoms firms from providing it with phone records.

The rights group was appealing directly to the states because it said the U.S. Congress had failed to exert its oversight role over the White House and because the Federal Communications Commission had chosen not to pursue complaints.

The ACLU and its affiliates are petitioning utilities regulators and attorneys general in 20 states to demand investigations and public hearings with a goal of stopping the domestic spying or revealing more about it.

Under a secret program set up under President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks, the NSA was authorized to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without first obtaining warrants, while pursuing al Qaeda suspects.

That program was first revealed in a New York Times report in December. USA Today this month reported that three major U.S. telephone companies turned over call records to the NSA, a report the companies have denied.

The telecoms firms and the FCC declined comment on the ACLU campaign on Wednesday.

"The NSA data mining program is just the latest example of what we believe is a longer-term abuse of power by the executive branch," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero told reporters on a conference call.

"It's an effort to undercut judicial review, to seize law-enforcement powers that it should not have and that Congress did not grant to it, and an effort to hide information from public scrutiny and public involvement on important issues that affect the basic rights of ordinary Americans," he said.

The FCC has said it will not pursue complaints about the reported provision of calling data to the NSA because it is unable to obtain classified material.

Bush has refused to confirm or deny the existence of any NSA data mining program but said any intelligence activities he authorized were legal and the government was not probing Americans' personal lives.

He has defended intelligence activities he has approved as vital for his declared war on terrorism, but privacy and civil rights advocates have called any NSA domestic spying without a court order illegal.

The ACLU campaign differs in each state depending on its law. Actions were filed in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky)