Judge Demands Telecom Lobbying Records

GENERIC: NSA, national security agency, logo, wiretap, spy, spying
A judge has ordered the federal government to release any information relating to lobbying efforts by telecommunications companies seeking to protect themselves from prosecution over warrantless wiretapping.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said "all responsive, non-exempt documents" or anything required to be released under the Freedom of Information Act must be turned over by Dec. 10.

The order comes in the wake of a class-action suit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T Inc., accusing the company of illegally making communications on its networks available to the National Security Agency without warrants.

Congress is still considering changing current law overseeing surveillance, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA, to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that would protect them from such court challenges.

"Any attempt for immunity is aimed at getting these very important cases swept back under the rug," EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said Wednesday.

The EFF wants to know about "discussions, briefings or other exchanges" telecommunications companies and members of Congress have had recently with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence regarding changes to FISA, according to Tuesday's court order.

In demanding the documents' release, the judge rejected the defendants' claim that the information sought would be used if held until after Congress completes debate and passes an amended warrantless wiretapping law.

While EFF lawyer David Sobel acknowledged he's unsure what he'll learn from the documents, he said they should shed some light on why the companies believe they need protection.

"If you're a telephone company executive and you feel like you need this grant of immunity and you're contacting the director of national intelligence about it ... you're going to explain why it is you feel so strongly that you need this protection," he said.

At the same time, the judge did not accept EFF's request that defendants produce a catalog (or "Vaughn Index") of documents withheld and explanations for their exclusion.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the intelligence director, said the department doesn't comment on pending litigation, but "of course we comply with court orders."

The EFF suit against AT&T is just one of about two dozen suits against telecommunications companies over the wiretapping program. Those cases have been consolidated in San Francisco's federal appeals court.

The president confirmed last December the NSA has been conducting warrantless surveillance of calls and e-mails believed to involve al Qaeda terrorists if at least one of the parties to the communication is outside the U.S.

A former employee of AT&T, however, contends that the telecom engaged in massive surveillance of all Internet and phone communications through equipment installed at the request of the government.

Retired technician Mark Klein said in 2003 he helped connect a device at an AT&T switching station that he said diverted and copied onto a government supercomputer every phone call, e-mail, and Internet site query made via AT&T lines, without discriminating among users and with no warrant attached.

Mr. Bush argues that such lawsuits could bankrupt the telecoms if they are found criminally liable; could reveal classified information; and discourage future cooperation with legal surveillance requests.

FISA requires the government to obtain court approval before conducting electronic surveillance on U.S. soil, even if the target is a foreign citizen in a foreign country.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently rejected a provision of telecom immunity in their write-up of the FISA law, but a competing bill from the Senate Intelligence Committee does contain it.

While Senate members may still debate the provision and move it forward, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has vowed to filibuster any bill that includes immunity.