EFF sues to uncover alleged telco lobbying

A civil liberties group has sued for documents about alleged carrier lobbying for amnesty in wiretapping cases.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) believes telecommunications carriers are pushing for an amnesty to protect them from lawsuits over alleged illegal wiretapping, and it is suing for the evidence.

EFF sued AT&T last year, alleging the carrier cooperated with a U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping project that the EFF believes to be illegal. The case, Hepting v. AT&T, has been consolidated in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco with nearly 50 similar lawsuits. The Department of Justice has tried to have the case thrown out on the grounds that hearing it would reveal state secrets.

With lobbying from carriers, the George Bush administration now is trying to pass laws that excuse the carriers, EFF alleges. The San Francisco civil-liberties group filed a new suit Thursday, seeking to force the government to hand over documents about that alleged lobbying.

The Hepting case and others like it raise questions about carriers' responsibilities to their customers and the government. EFF alleges AT&T violated its customers' privacy by letting the NSA use its facilities for broad wiretaps that allegedly were illegally launched without warrants.

The Bush administration has proposed granting amnesty retroactively to carriers who have helped the government in its antiterrorism spying efforts, said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at EFF. Its proposals didn't make it into the recently passed Protect America Act of 2007, which expanded the government's power to intercept Americans' overseas communications without warrants, but could still be added to it, Opsahl said.

Based on newspaper articles and other information, EFF believes the carriers have lobbied for that amnesty. Last month the San Francisco group filed requests for information about that lobbying under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Justice Department acknowledged the requests and agreed to expedite them but hasn't finished processing them or said when it will provide the documents, EFF said. The department had 20 days to process the request, but did not respond in time Opsahl said. EFF wants the court to force the Justice Department to produce the documents.

Justice Department officials were not immediately available for comment.

Retroactive amnesty to protect carriers from suits over the alleged illegal wiretaps would be a rare move, Opsahl said. If such a law passed, it might end the EFF's Hepting suit, he said.

"The idea of granting amnesty to telcos for violating the rights of millions of Americans effectively surrenders the rule of law," Opsahl said. "It rejects responsibility in favor of rewarding lawbreakers."

The FOIA case is being heard before Judge Reggie Walton in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The government has until Oct. 27 to respond to EFF's FOIA suit, Opsahl said.