Secrecy News

CRS Views Government Access to Phone Records

The government’s acquisition of telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, as reported last week in USA Today, raises a host of thorny legal issues. In a new report (pdf), the Congressional Research Service performed a preliminary assessment of those issues.

“The factual information available in the public domain with respect to any such alleged program is limited and in some instances inconsistent,” the CRS authors caution, “and the application, if at all, of any possibly relevant statutory provisions to any such program is likely to be a very fact specific inquiry.”

Having said that, the CRS explains that there are several statutes that may be pertinent and that could conceivably entail civil or criminal penalties for telephone companies that provide information to the government without statutory authorization.

“This [CRS] report …summarize[s] statutory authorities regarding access by the Government, for either foreign intelligence or law enforcement purposes, to information related to telephone calling patterns or practices. Where pertinent, we will also discuss statutory prohibitions against accessing or disclosing such information, along with relevant exceptions to those prohibitions.”

The Congressional Research Service does not make its products directly available to the public. But a copy of the latest report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Government Access to Phone Calling Activity and Related Records: Legal Authorities,” May 17, 2006.

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