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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2006

Government overreach

IF NEW revelations about the government's warrantless domestic spying program don't spark a major revolt in this country, what in the world will it take?

Recently published reports reveal a most disturbing intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Americans that, if valid, raises all sorts of Big Brother alarms.

According to USA Today, the National Security Agency has been compiling a massive database of the personal phone calls of more than 200 million Americans since Sept. 11, 2001.

Relying on sources who would only talk under a guarantee of anonymity, the report said that the nation's largest phone companies - AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth - helped the spy agency keep tabs on the calling habits of Americans.

The three vast networks were uniquely positioned to assist government assembly of the world's largest database. They have the latest communications technologies covering a range of services from local and long-distance calling to wireless and high-speed broadband, including video.

They also have direct access to millions of homes and businesses. And now so does the government. The telecommunications giants provided the NSA with the records of billions of domestic calls from home phones, cells, and business lines. The data didn't include customers' names, addresses, or other personal information but apparently that can be easily obtained by cross-checking other databases.

As with the controversial NSA operation of eavesdropping on the calls of suspected terrorists inside the United States without a warrant, established protocol was also ignored while collecting information on every phone call made in this country.

The Bush Administration's pattern of circumventing laws enacted to protect civil liberties grows ever more pronounced and alarming.

In December the nation learned that the NSA, with the implicit approval of the President, was eavesdropping, without the required warrants, on international phone calls and e-mails to or from the U.S. The administration simply decided that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), enacted to regulate domestic electronic surveillance, could be bypassed.

Likewise, when the NSA asked the nation's biggest telecommunications companies for millions of records, the spy agency insisted that warrants and approval by a special FISA court were unnecessary.

The pitch was all about patriotism: National security was said to be at risk.

Complying with a government request for customer information without a court order was a big departure from past phone company practices.

The caveats were based on provisions under the federal Communications Act that prohibit phone companies from releasing information like whom a person calls, or inbound calls and wireless ones.

Only one major telecommunications company was sufficiently uncomfortable with the NSA proposals to reject them outright. Qwest, which provides local phone service to 14 million customers in 14 western and northwestern states, refused to turn over its records to the government, citing legal concerns.

The other phone companies have some explaining to do.

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