Monitoring hits roadblock

Amnesty for phone companies that cooperate is key, officials say

December 16, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- For months, the Bush administration has waged a high-profile campaign, including personal lobbying by President Bush and closed-door briefings by top officials, to persuade Congress to pass legislation protecting companies from lawsuits for aiding the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program.

But the battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government's extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime. The NSA's reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure.

To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. But in 2004, one major phone carrier balked at turning over its customers' records. Worried about possible privacy violations or public relations problems, company executives declined to help the operation, which has not been previously disclosed.

In a separate NSA project, executives at a Denver phone carrier, Qwest, refused in early 2001 to give the agency access to the company's most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls, according to people aware of the request, which has not been previously reported. They say the arrangement could have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order, which alarmed them.

The federal government's reliance on private industry has been driven by changes in technology. Two decades ago, telephone calls and other communications traveled mostly through the air, relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The NSA could vacuum up phone, fax and data traffic merely by erecting its own satellite dishes. But the fiber optics revolution has sent more international communications by land and undersea cable, forcing the agency to seek company cooperation to get access.

After the disclosure two years ago that the NSA was eavesdropping on the international communications of terrorism suspects inside the United States without warrants, more than 40 lawsuits were filed against the government and phone carriers. As a result, skittish companies and their lawyers have been demanding stricter safeguards before they provide access to the government and, in some cases, are refusing outright to cooperate, officials said.

"It's a very frayed and strained relationship right now, and that's not a good thing for the country in terms of keeping all of us safe," said an industry official who believes that immunity is critical for the phone carriers. "This episode has caused companies to change their conduct in a variety of ways."

With a vote in the Senate on the issue expected as early as tomorrow, the Bush administration has intensified its efforts to win retroactive immunity for companies cooperating with counterterrorism operations.

"The intelligence community cannot go it alone," Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, wrote in a New York Times op-ed article Monday urging Congress to pass the immunity provision. "Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits."

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey echoed that theme in an op-ed article of his own in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, saying private companies would be reluctant to provide their "full-hearted help" if they were not given legal protections.

The telecommunications companies that gave the government access are pushing hard for legal protection from Congress. As part of a broader plan to restructure the NSA's wiretapping authority, the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed to give immunity to the telecommunications companies, but the Judiciary Committee refused to do so. The White House has threatened to veto any plan that left out immunity, as the House bill does.

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