Spy boss undercuts security case by confirming AT&T role
San Francisco Chronicle
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
August 24, 2007

A newspaper interview by the nation's spymaster, confirming that telecommunications companies have helped the Bush administration's clandestine surveillance program, has undermined the government's attempt to shield AT&T for its role in the effort, a lawyer for customers of the company said Thursday.

The director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, said under oath three months ago that it would cause "exceptionally grave harm to the national security" to confirm or deny that telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon had helped the government in "alleged intelligence activities."

But in an interview published Wednesday by the El Paso Times, McConnell said the companies "had assisted us" in an electronic surveillance program and should be protected by Congress from lawsuits pending in a San Francisco federal court.

"If you're going to get access, you've got to have a partner, and they were being sued," McConnell told the Times. "Now if you play out the suits at the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these companies."

The interview was conducted last week, just as the Bush administration was asking a federal appeals court to dismiss lawsuits against AT&T and the government on national security grounds.

Justice Department lawyers relied heavily on McConnell's May 24 declaration that a courtroom inquiry into the government's relationship with the companies, or other details of the cases, would endanger the nation.

Kurt Opsahl, one of the privacy-rights lawyers representing AT&T customers in San Francisco, said Thursday that McConnell's newspaper comments contradicted the administration's legal position.

"The government has taken such an extreme position that this information is secret, a substantive part of thir argument that these cases must be dismissed," said Opsahl, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "The director of national intelligence candidly confirmed what had been previously asserted to be secret."

Opsahl said the government has discounted statements by members of Congress, an AT&T whistle-blower and others alleging that telecommunications companies had cooperated in the surveillance program, and has insisted that the only meaningful confirmation could come from a member of the administration. "Now we have a statement by a member of the administration," he said.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment. AT&T issued a statement saying the company "is fully committed to protecting our customers' privacy. We do not comment on matters of national security."

The lawsuits accuse AT&T and other companies of allowing the government to intercept telephone calls and e-mails, and examine millions of customer records, without search warrants.

Plaintiffs in the AT&T case have submitted a declaration by a former company engineer who said he helped install equipment at the company's San Francisco office that diverted e-mail traffic to a room accessible only to employees with government clearances.

About 50 lawsuits, mostly against telecommunications companies, have been transferred to San Francisco by a judicial panel since Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker refused to dismiss the AT&T case in a July 2006 ruling. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard arguments last week on appeals of Walker's decision by the government and AT&T.

President Bush confirmed in December 2005, after the New York Times revealed the program, that he had authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap calls between Americans and terrorist suspects abroad since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also acknowledged that the agency had not obtained the warrants required by a 1978 federal law, but said he had acted in his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief.

Congress endorsed the surveillance program earlier this month in legislation that also protected telecommunications companies against lawsuits for any future participation in the program. However, the bill, which expires in six months, did not immunize the companies for any past illegal conduct.

Bush has urged Congress to grant the companies complete immunity, a position that McConnell endorsed in the newspaper interview.

Opsahl, whose AT&T lawsuit would be dismissed if Congress granted full immunity to the company, criticized the proposal.

"If there is no liability, telecommunications providers are free to participate in any illegal scheme that the government comes up with, with no repercussions," he said. "The possibility of liability gives them an incentive to say no."

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.

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