House Intelligence Committee to probe phone companies cooperation with NSA wiretapping
Michael Roston
Published: Thursday May 24, 2007
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The House Intelligence Committee has announced that it will investigate the cooperation of telephone companies with the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping activities.

"One of [Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell's] proposals is to grant immunity to individuals who and companies that facilitated electronic surveillance activities that were part of the NSA surveillance program disclosed by the President in December 2005," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in a press release sent to RAW STORY. "Before granting immunity for any activities, it will be important to review what those activities were, what was the legal basis for those activities, and what would be the impact of a grant of immunity."

A number of lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies for their alleged cooperation with the NSA's domestic eavesdropping program. The lawsuit filed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation against AT&T exemplifies the kind of cases that the Director of National Intelligence is seeking to keep out of court.

"EFF's lawsuit alleges that AT&T has given the NSA unchecked backdoor access to its communications network and its record databases. On behalf of a nationwide class of AT&T customers, EFF is suing to stop this illegal conduct and hold AT&T responsible for violating the law and the fundamental freedoms of the American public," said a release at the privacy group's website.

Two New Jersey-based attorneys also sued Verizon on a similar basis in 2006.

EFF noted at their website that attempts to seek immunity had already been rejected in the federal court system.

"AT&T cannot seriously contend that a reasonable entity in its position could have believed that the alleged domestic dragnet was legal," Federal District Judge Vaughn Walker wrote.

Reyes announcement of hearings on the NSA's spying programs was released in response to an op-ed written by McConnell in the Washington Post on Monday in which he described the need to 'modernize' the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"Technology and threats have changed, but [FISA] remains essentially the same. If we are to improve our ability to protect the country by gathering foreign intelligence, this law must be updated to reflect changes in technology and the ways our adversaries communicate with one another," he wrote.

While McConnell has called for immunizing the telecommunications companies in other settings, he did not do so in the Monday op-ed. Critics of the Intelligence Community's domestic spying program have assailed the op-ed for being unnecessarily vague about the Director of National Intelligence's plans.

"McConnell's editorial also suspiciously declines to specify at all what changes the Administration wants," wrote Ryan Singel at Wired's 'Threat Level' blog.

Reyes noted that he would call a variety of officials before the House Intelligence Committee, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey, and other top Intelligence Community officials in addition to McConnell.

He added, "Certain hearings may have to occur in closed session, but a major hearing on legislative proposals - featuring Administration witnesses and outside experts - will occur in open session. Changes to public laws should be debated in public."