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Telecoms are caught between branches

Kai Ryssdal Oct 16, 2007

Telecoms are caught between branches

Kai Ryssdal Oct 16, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: “We’d tell you, but then we’d have to kill you” — That’s basically what big telecommunications companies are telling Congress.

Lawmakers are considering an extension of a federal eavesdropping law. Democrats have asked for details about what kinds of cooperation the likes of Verizon and MCI have already given. But in a series of letters that have been made public today, the companies say the executive branch won’t let them tell.

Evan Perez covers the Justice Department for the Wall Street Journal — Mr. Perez, good to have you here.

Evan Perez: Thank you.

RYSSDAL: Kind of a happy coincidence, isn’t it, that as Congress is considering new FISA rules, we’re getting these letters from the big telecom companies… What are these letters telling us?

Perez: Well, Congress has requested that the companies give some kind of indication what level of cooperation, what kind of cooperation, they have given to the government. And in particular, they’re trying to figure out what help they gave to the national security agencies after 9-11 with regard to the warrantless wiretapping program. The government, obviously the White House, the president, has tried to keep that program hidden, declaring it a state secret, and has pretty much prevented the companies from talking about it. But these letters were unusual in that the companies, for the first time, were defending themselves, saying that essentially: “We help the government on all kinds of things — and it’s in the public interest to do so.” And they’re basically trying to counter the impression that people have that they may have acted illegally.

RYSSDAL: What kinds of things are these companies telling the government about us? It’s people we call, it’s Internet addresses… is it more than just that?

Perez: The FBI in particular, and the NSA, they’ve been asking for things like your calling circle. They want to know, they try to get the information about not only this person’s data and what kind of calls that person makes, but who that person is calling, and who that person is calling as well. So it looks like it was far and wide that they were reaching.

RYSSDAL: Where does this play out as Congress gets ready to take this vote? What’s the next step in this entire debate?

Perez: Well, right now the big question is whether Congress will give these companies a retroactive immunity from lawsuits. The companies and the White House believe they should get this because they believe that the companies acted in good faith, that the government came to them after 9-11, asking for this information and they cooperated with it. The Democrats in Congress — and there’s a lot of civil libertarians, also — believe that such blanket liability protection should not be given until we know what exactly they’re being protected from. What exactly did they give to the NSA? And the White House is desperately trying to stop that.

RYSSDAL: Immunity, of course, pre-supposes lawsuits. There are some already flying around this very issue, aren’t there?

Perez: There are — there’s a bunch of cases that have been gathered in circuit court. And so the White House is essentially trying to save the secrecy of this program by shielding these lawsuits, by blocking these lawsuits. And there’s a lot of debate as to what exactly the White House is trying to save here — the White House is saying it’s trying to protect national security, but there’s a lot of critics who think what really they’re trying to protect is some further embarrassment.

RYSSDAL: Evan Perez covers the Justice Department for the Wall Street Journal — Mr. Perez, thanks a lot for your time.

Perez: Thank you.

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