Company's refusal to hand over phone records draws praise
By Jeff Smith, Rocky Mountain News
May 12, 2006
Qwest Communications' lone refusal to cooperate with the
federal government's spy agency in secretly collecting
customer telephone records drew praise from lawmakers and
many others Thursday. A source familiar with the situation
confirmed a report that the Denver telco was the only major
phone carrier to balk in helping the National Security
Agency track and keep a database of domestic calls.
reported that the country's three largest carriers -- AT&T,
Verizon and BellSouth -- have helped the NSA since shortly
after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to collect the
phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. The
NSA reportedly analyzes the data to determine calling
patterns that might reveal terrorist activities.
Qwest Chief Executive Dick Notebaert declined to comment
when reached by e-mail.
Said company spokesman Bob Toevs: "Qwest doesn't comment on
matters related to national security."
Qwest initially balked at participating in the NSA program
when former CEO Joe Nacchio headed the telco and continued
the position under Notebaert,
Qwest's top executives and lawyers were concerned about the
legal issues, consumer privacy issues and possible fines
that might be assessed if customer information was
inappropriately turned over.
News of the alleged domestic eavesdropping sparked a fresh
outcry from lawmakers and constitutional rights activists.
U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., was one of many who praised
Qwest's position and called for Senate hearings on the
"I have long been concerned about the NSA's domestic spying
program, and today's media reports only reinforce that
concern," Salazar said in a statement. "I also laud
Denver-based Qwest Communications for its decision not to
share private information with the NSA."
Qwest also was concerned about the "expansiveness" of NSA's
request to include the possibility of the information being
shared with other government agencies, including the FBI,
CIA and Drug Enforcement Agency, according to
Rob Douglas, a security consultant in Colorado who has
testified before Congress numerous times about privacy
issues, said it was the possible record-sharing among
agencies that struck him the most.
"It demonstrates the slippery slope", Douglas said. "What
relevance would a DEA operation be to thwarting a
catastrophic terrorist event? I don't see the connect.
This is always the concern with data mining, that the
government will broaden its authority . . . the Big Brother
Douglas said the NSA program might represent the largest
database ever collected about Americans and poses "huge
Through the cooperation by the other three carriers, the NSA
had the country covered except for parts of Qwest's 14-state
local phone region.
The NSA reportedly put pressure on Qwest by suggesting its
lack of cooperation not only could harm national security
but possibly affect the company's ability to get classified
work with the government.
reported that Nacchio was "deeply troubled" by the NSA's
argument that Qwest didn't need court orders to turn over
the phone records.
Some found Nacchio's reported resistance to the NSA program
Nacchio, who faces 42 charges of insider trading, has
indicated that one of the defenses in his criminal case may
be that he possessed confidential information that made him
optimistic about the telco's prospects to land federal
That optimism would seem to be contradicted by Qwest's
refusal to participate in the NSA program.
But the timing may be key: Nacchio was indicted in
connection with selling stock in the first five months of
2001. Nacchio's attorneys may argue that Qwest indeed
unexpectedly lost federal business after Sept. 11 because of
Nacchio's refusal to cooperate with the NSA.
John Richilano, Nacchio's local attorney, declined to
comment Thursday, as did Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the
U.S. attorney's office in Colorado.
It's unclear whether Qwest's federal business actually
suffered because of its refusal to participate in the NSA
Qwest has announced at least a dozen major government
contracts since the fall of 2001, with the Department of
Defense, the Army, the Air Force, NASA, the Department of
Energy, the Department of Treasury and others.
Many of those contracts, in fact, were won while the General
Services Administration was considering suspending or
barring Qwest from receiving federal business because of
allegations that it had inflated its revenue during the
While lawmakers praised Qwest for refusing to help the NSA,
investors were tepid, with Qwest stock declining by 9 cents
to $6.51 a share on Thursday.
"I don't think it's a big deal", said Donna Jaegers, a
telecommunications analyst with Janco Partners of Greenwood
Village. "Maybe it creates some near-term goodwill. But in
Colorado, Qwest has about an 82 percent market share, so I
don't know if it's going to make all that much difference.
Service counts a lot more".
The effect on Qwest
Qwest has done its share
to reinvent the company in recent years, but it may have
generated an unexpected windfall by rebuffing the National
• Will the
news reflect positively on Qwest? That depends on the
"political orientation of the individual consumer," said
Bryan Thomas, chief executive officer of the Denver
marketing firm Thomas, Taber & Drazen.
"For those of a more conservative nature who have supported
this kind of (national security) approach, this doesn't put
Qwest in a good light. For those who are more liberal,
they'll probably say, 'Hurrah for them for sticking to their
guns and not bowing to the pressures of D.C.' "
• Will the
company need to address the issue with customers? That will
depend on how big an issue it becomes in the coming days,
"This has just come out, and you don't want to overreact to
it. Let's see where it goes, and if it becomes a bigger
issue, then from a P.R. standpoint they'll need to come out
and state why they're taking the position they are. If it's
well-thought out, I think most consumers who are fair-minded
will say, 'I respect that'. Certainly there will always be
others who will say, 'I'm canceling my service.' "
• Can Qwest
use this news in marketing? Both Thomas and Leanna Clark, a
principal at Schenkein Public Relations in Denver, say the
issue is much too sensitive to become part of a media or
marketing campaign in the future.
"I would take the more subtle approach and let it speak for
itself, though there might be opportunities to leverage it
down the road", Clark said. "But it's not an issue you want
to come out and beat your chest about."
delegation weighs in on allegations that the National
Security Agency collected Americans' phone records.
• Sen. Ken
Salazar, D-Denver: "I think that there should be a great
alarm to the people of America that potentially tens of
millions of phone call records have been turned over by
these companies to the federal government. If in fact this
is what has been going on through the NSA in conjunction
with telephone companies, I think it's wrong and it's
something that needs to be taken very seriously."
• Sen. Wayne
Allard, R-Loveland: "I do not support domestic
eavesdropping on the American people's private telephone
conversations. According to information provided to me by
the White House, telephone customers' names, addresses and
other personal information have not been handed over to NSA
as part of this program. The White House and the chairman
of the Senate Intelligence Committee have clearly and
repeatedly stated to me that there is no domestic
surveillance without court approval. NSA's terrorist
surveillance program intercepts calls made by terrorists in
other countries to suspected terrorists in the United
States. It is not designed to nor intended to eavesdrop on
domestic-to-domestic phone calls. I strongly support the
NSA terrorist surveillance program and believe it is a key
tool in the global war on terror."
• Rep. Diana
DeGette, D-Denver: "I'm appalled by the concept that phone
companies and the NSA should be colluding to have the
records of domestic phone calls just given over to our
premier spying agency. It's not about al-Qaida. It's not
about terrorist interception. It's about records that would
show regular phone calls between regular Americans."
• Rep. Joel
Hefley, R-Colorado Springs: "What I understand is this is
not a matter of listening in on anybody's calls, but having
the information about the routing of calls so they can help
determine the techniques used by terrorist groups to
communicate in the United States. There will be a
misconception out there that every phone call you make will
be listened-in by somebody. I don't think that's the case
at all. If they need to do this to protect the country,
they need to do it."
• Rep. Mark
Udall, D-Eldorado Springs: "It confirms what a lot of us
thought, that there was more to this story. It once again
raises the responsibility Congress has to hold this
administration accountable. I have no question in my mind
that we ought to be surveilling those who would do us harm,
but the president, like everyone else in our system of
government, ought to procure warrants to do so."
• Rep. Bob
Beauprez, R-Arvada: "The government must do everything in
its power to legitimately and effectively support the war on
terrorism. However, we must be aware that in this effort,
we do not overstep the boundaries of law-abiding citizens.
There may be cause for a congressional investigation, but at
this time we do not have all of the facts."
Marilyn Musgrave, R-Fort Morgan: "The news of this concerns
me greatly. I will be contacting the president and the head
of the NSA, demanding all relevant information regarding
this program and specifically asking about probable cause.
In my opinion, if there wasn't a serious terrorism or
national security threat, we have a big problem on our
• Rep. John
Salazar, D-Manassa: "I'm still concerned that the president
or executive branch has that kind of power to acquire phone
records from a phone company. I believe in due process and
Congress' oversight as well."
• Rep. Tom
Tancredo, R-Littleton, did not respond to requests for