White House won't disclose which telcos it advised on wiretap lobbying
Nick Juliano
Published: Friday May 2, 2008

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Congress still deadlocked over FISA

Newly disclosed court papers confirm for the first time that the representatives of the nation's largest telecommunications companies reached out to the White House for advice on how to lobby Congress over a Bush administration proposal to give them retroactive immunity.

The Bush administration is refusing to disclose the contents of those communications, which include e-mails, letters and notes showing lobbying strategy.

Administration officials claim their refusal is based on national security concerns, but if they were to comply with the Freedom of Information Act request seeking those internal records, it would almost certainly show a deep and unseemly level of coordination between President Bush's advisers and the telecommunications companies they contracted to carry out his warrantless wiretapping program, critics say.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball reported this week:

The Bush administration is refusing to disclose internal e-mails, letters and notes showing contacts with major telecommunications companies over how to persuade Congress to back a controversial surveillance bill, according to recently disclosed court documents.

The existence of these documents surfaced only in recent days as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a privacy group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The foundation (alerted to the issue in part by a NEWSWEEK story last fall) is seeking information about communications among administration officials, Congress and a battery of politically well-connected lawyers and lobbyists hired by such big telecom carriers as AT&T and Verizon. Court papers recently filed by government lawyers in the case confirm for the first time that since last fall unnamed representatives of the telecoms phoned and e-mailed administration officials to talk about ways to block more than 40 civil suits accusing the companies of privacy violations because of their participation in a secret post-9/11 surveillance program ordered by the White House.

At the time, the White House was proposing a surveillance bill—strongly backed by the telecoms—that included a sweeping provision that would grant them retroactive immunity from any lawsuits accusing the companies of wrongdoing related to the surveillance program.

Congress has been wrangling over how to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act since soon after the president's warrantless wiretapping of Americans was revealed in December 2005.

The fight has intensified since last summer, when Congress passed a stopgap measure under intense pressure from the Bush administration. That measure expired in February and the House and Senate since then have been at odds over a long-term FISA fix.

The Senate approved an administration-backed FISA update that includes immunity for the telecommunications companies that facilitated the program, while House Democrats have balked at the immunity proposal. A House bill to update FISA excluded an immunity provision and called for more oversight over the administration's domestic surveillance measures carried out by the National Security Agency.

Daily Kos commenter McJoan says the revelation that the telecoms have sought advice from the Bush administration demonstrates their attempts to avoid court rulings on the legality of their actions.

"The telcos that participated knew at the time that they were breaking the law--that's why Qwest didn't participate, and why AT&T and Verizon and the others shouldn't have either," she writes. "They knew it then and they particularly know it now. Thus their effort to pull all the levers possible to continuing covering up their actions--and the administrations'."

 
 


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