The U.S. government has sued the New Jersey Attorney General's office on grounds of security concerns to prevent it from asking telephone companies if they gave customer call records to the National Security Agency.
The government wants to stop the disclosure of confidential and sensitive information, according to the lawsuit filed in Trenton, New Jersey on Wednesday, a day before phone companies were due to reply to subpoenas issued by the New Jersey attorney general.
"Compliance with the subpoenas issued by those officers would first place the carriers in a position of having to confirm or deny the existence of information that cannot be confirmed or denied without causing exceptionally grave harm to national security," the lawsuit said.
New Jersey Attorney General Zulima Farber sent subpoenas to AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc., Cingular Wireless, Sprint Nextel and Qwest Communications International Inc. on May 17 asking if they had cooperated with the NSA.
The suit charged that New Jersey's attorney general issued the subpoenas without proper authorization from the federal government. The lawsuit named AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Qwest and Cingular, a venture of AT&T and BellSouth, as defendants as well as Farber and other New Jersey officials.
USA Today newspaper reported last month that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth Corp. gave the NSA access to and turned over call data so it could secretly analyze calling patterns to detect terrorist plots. This provoked a host of lawsuits and objections from privacy advocates.
BellSouth has denied turning over information to the NSA, and Verizon has said that it does not provide the government with unfettered access to customer records.
AT&T has said it helps when asked by the government but only within the law. A lawyer for Qwest's former Chief executive Joe Nacchio has said that he refused government requests for information.
David Wald, a spokesperson for the New Jersey attorney general, did not say what Farber's next step would be.
"We acted to determine whether the rights of citizens in New Jersey have been violated. The federal government told us we could not make such an inquiry. We will look at this complaint and respond in court," Wald said.
AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp said, "The filing by the federal government underscores the fact that the government and not corporations has responsibility for and control over national security issues."
Representatives for Verizon and Sprint Nextel were not immediately available for comment. Cingular and Qwest declined comment saying they do not discuss national security matters.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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