Blumner: Lawmakers should reject immunity for telecoms in wiretap cases
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The administration's demand that Congress shield the telecommunications industry from lawsuits for aiding in the systematic warrantless wiretapping of Americans has far less to do with protecting national security than its own exposed flanks.

Make no mistake, telecom immunity is about keeping a flagrantly illegal program from public scrutiny and maintaining the illusion that the president ordered a small, precision surveillance program, when the opposite is true.

After The New York Times unearthed the administration's warrantless domestic wiretapping program in December 2005, President Bush assured the nation that what he had authorized the National Security Agency to do was very limited.

In his weekly radio address, Bush said he had ordered the NSA ''to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations.'' And he promised that ''before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks.''

The president was essentially saying that only Americans in overseas communication with known terror suspects would have their privacy invaded. But as with so much of what Bush says, this does not pass the pants-on-fire test.

Former telecommunications technician Mark Klein worked for more than 22 years for AT&T before retiring. He knows the specifics of Bush's program and witnessed ''the NSA's vacuum cleaner surveillance infrastructure.'' He calls it ''a vast, government-sponsored warrantless spying program,'' and has detailed internal documents to back up his claims.

In 2003, Klein was assigned to oversee AT&T Internet operations at a company facility in San Francisco. Klein says that there was a secret NSA room into which flowed a copy of all Internet traffic - vast amounts of which were purely domestic - including all e-mails, documents, pictures, Web browsing and Voice-Over-Internet phone conversations. Klein says it was he who connected the circuits carrying Internet data to optical ''splitters'' that made a copy of the traffic and sent it to the NSA room.

According to Klein, going through this ''splitter'' were AT&T's links to other Internet providers, such as Sprint, Qwest and many others, meaning that the wholesale surveillance scooped up customers of these entities as well.

In conversations with other technicians, Klein says he was told of other secret NSA rooms in Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego, and he has an AT&T document that mentions Atlanta. The document also implies that there are other such rooms across the country.

So here it is, a dragnet bigger than one's brain can conceive, the ultimate Big Brother. Government computers watching what millions of us do on the Internet, plucking out for a further look-see anything that they find suspicious.

We are all suspects now.

The reason that the Bush administration wouldn't follow the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and get a proper warrant, even from the secret FISA court, is that the administration wanted access to huge quantities of what was read, written and said over the nation's communications channels. Warrants require some specificity and individual suspicion. No court, not even the administration-friendly FISA court, would have approved such a monstrous fishing expedition of Americans' Internet habits.

The administration claims it wants telecom immunity from lawsuits because those companies came to the nation's rescue during a national emergency. Well, that might be true if the program lasted only a few days or weeks after 9/11. But it has been years. The telecoms have smart lawyers and knew this was illegal. Qwest Communications reportedly wouldn't go along for that very reason.

No, the fight over immunity has to do with trying to keep the startling breadth and invasiveness of this program from court review.

One of our inalienable rights is that we don't have to live in a fishbowl. But for those who think anything that furthers security is justified, the truth is that this kind of build-a-bigger-haystack approach to finding terrorist-needles is actually counterproductive.

Last year, The New York Times reported that the flood of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names sent from the NSA to the FBI for follow-up was causing hundreds of agents to go on wild goose chases. ''After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration,'' one former FBI official told the Times. A former senior prosecutor told the paper that the NSA information ''never led to anything.''

In Congress, the House-passed version of a new domestic surveillance bill does not include retroactive immunity for the telecoms. The Senate, however, is being wobbly, and may accede to Bush's demands. If immunity is granted, the Democrats in power should be ashamed.

In 2005, the president assured us that his surveillance program was ''consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.'' It was a lie. Otherwise, he wouldn't be so abjectly terrified by the dozens of lawsuits the program has spawned.

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* ROBYN BLUMNER can be reached by e-mail sent to blumner@sptimes.com.