By Dan Eggen and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The Bush administration said yesterday that the government "lost intelligence information" because House Democrats allowed a surveillance law to expire last week, causing some telecommunications companies to refuse to cooperate with terrorism-related wiretapping orders.
But hours later, administration officials told lawmakers that the final holdout among the companies had relented and agreed to fully participate in the surveillance program, according to an official familiar with the issue.
The assertions and revisions marked the latest developments in the battle over the Protect America Act, a temporary surveillance law broadening the government's spying powers that expired last Saturday.
The administration wants the House to approve a Senate bill that would make the law permanent while adding retroactive legal immunity for telecom companies, which face more than 40 lawsuits over alleged invasions of privacy while helping to conduct warrantless wiretapping efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. House Democratic leaders have balked at the immunity provision, and adjourned the chamber last week without renewing the law.
The standoff has led to almost daily attacks from the White House and GOP lawmakers, who accuse Democrats of endangering national security to appease civil-liberties advocates and other liberal groups.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said in a letter sent yesterday afternoon to Capitol Hill that the companies were refusing to cooperate because they were uncertain about what legal liability they might face.
"We have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress' failure to act," McConnell and Mukasey wrote to Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the House intelligence committee. "Because of this uncertainty, some partners have reduced cooperation."
The two officials noted that some companies have "delayed or refused compliance" with requests to add surveillance targets to general orders that were approved before the law expired. They did not provide further details.
Reyes and other Democrats have countered by accusing Republicans of fear-mongering, noting that long-standing surveillance laws remain in effect and that all surveillance under the expired law is authorized until at least August.
Reyes and three other Democrats -- Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) -- said in a joint response that Republicans are "politicizing the debate" and have refused to participate in negotiations over the legislation.
Spokesmen for AT&T, Verizon and Sprint declined to comment. The lawsuits against them are effectively on hold pending a ruling by an appeals court in San Francisco on whether to halt them on national security grounds. But some people familiar with their thinking said that the companies reduced cooperation for practical reasons.
"The skittishness and concern is the companies are already spending a great deal of money on a number of suits pending that they don't have the ability to defend against because of the State Secrets Act," said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "That's why the companies are saying, 'We just can't put ourselves in the position of having another round of suits against us because there's no law in place at the moment that will protect us from litigation.' "