Surveillance Law Could Hold New Risks for Telecom Firms
By Evan Perez
The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, October 20, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Legislation aimed at updating a law on
government-surveillance activities would give telecommunications
companies legal immunity for aiding a warrantless wiretapping
program after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- but leave them
vulnerable when it came to any aid they offered previously.
The exception may be significant in light of suggestions by
Joseph Nacchio, former chief executive of Qwest Communications
International Inc., that the government approached telecom
providers for help in a contentious surveillance program run by
the National Security Agency before Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Nacchio was convicted this spring of insider trading and is
free pending his appeal.
In recently unsealed court documents in his insider-trading
case, he said he declined to cooperate with "improper government
requests" from the NSA in February 2001. He has said in the
past that he refused to comply with an NSA request to hand over
private phone records of Qwest customers.
His comments appear to be in conflict with the administration's
assertion that President Bush authorized the NSA program, known
as the Terrorist Surveillance Program, after Sept. 11.
Several telecom providers, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon
Communications Inc., are fighting lawsuits alleging that they
violated privacy laws by providing customer information to the
government without court warrants.
The bill is part of a fragile deal reached by Democrats and
Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and believed
to satisfy White House demands. It would grant the telecom
providers legal immunity for assistance they rendered to the NSA
program, which operated without warrants from the court that
Sen. John D. Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who is
chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "Private
companies who received legal assurances from the highest levels
of government should not be dragged through the courts for their
help with national security."
Under pressure from the courts and Congress, the White House
earlier this year subjected the NSA program to the jurisdiction
of the court that administers the law that oversees the
government's wiretapping activities, known as the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Telecom providers publicly have remained quiet in the fight over
immunity, but have argued that they traditionally have enjoyed
legal protection when responding to government orders to help on
such surveillance programs.
The administration has been pushing for a permanent update of
FISA, which was enacted in 1978. A temporary measure in August
afforded the president some expanded surveillance powers, but
prompted an outcry from liberal and civil-liberties groups.
Democratic leaders promised to revisit aspects of the measure
that expanded the president's power to order surveillance with
limited court supervision.
The new bill, which was approved by the Senate Intelligence
Committee, would increase court oversight of the procedures used
to conduct the surveillance. It would be effective for six
Some Senate and House Democrats criticized the Senate
Intelligence legislation over the immunity clause. The bill
faces review by the Senate Judiciary Committee, where some
lawmakers are skeptical of telecom immunity. The House is
expected to take up its own FISA bill that doesn't include the
A White House spokesman said the Senate bill "has a lot of good
components." He said the administration is still studying the
legislation and that it hopes to change a provision that
requires court oversight for surveillance that targets Americans
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