NSA cited as hurdle against AT&T merger

A coalition of dozens of former AT&T business partners are raising alarms about the telecom giant's past cooperation with the National Security Agency (NSA), which could pose problems for its $48.5 billion merger with DirecTV.

AT&T violated privacy laws by voluntarily handing over to the spy agency data about Americans' phone and Internet communications in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, critics told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a letter late on Wednesday.

In light of that cooperation, they urged the FCC to think carefully about approving the merger with DirecTV. If it does, they want the agency to require AT&T to enact tough new privacy rules.


The complaint was filed by the Minority Cellular Partners Coalition, a group of more than 90 former AT&T business partners who have teamed up to block the merger. In December, the coalition hired K Street powerhouse Podesta Group to lobby on its behalf.

They accuse AT&T of violating a 1994 federal wiretapping law which tells companies to intercept communications “only in accordance with a court order” by participating in a secretive George W. Bush administration program created in the weeks after the 2001 terror attacks.

According to documents revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, the NSA made it clear to private companies that the program was “cooperative” and “voluntary."

Yet AT&T reportedly stepped up to participate, and received 44 letters requesting assistance from the NSA between 2001 and 2006, despite never receiving a warrant or court order. 

“By so doing, AT&T knowingly committed egregious and continuing violations” of the law and its own privacy procedures, the coalition wrote.

The Bush-era NSA program is similar to but distinct from a still active operation at the NSA, authorized by Congress and overseen by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that is at the center of a congressional dispute over the agency’s ability to collect bulk phone records about Americans.

The AT&T-DirecTV merger is currently pending review at the FCC and Justice Department. Company officials have hoped that it will be approved early this year.