Judge: Feds Must Release Telecom Records

An electronic privacy group challenging President Bush's domestic spying program scored a minor victory after a judge ordered the federal government to release information about lobbying efforts by telecommunications companies to protect them from prosecution.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation in January 2006 filed a class-action suit against AT&T Inc., accusing the company of illegally making communications on its networks available to the National Security Agency without warrants.

Congress is now considering changing the law to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that would protect them from such court challenges.

"Any attempt for immunity is aimed at getting these very important cases swept back under the rug," EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said Wednesday.

The EFF wants to know about "discussions, briefings or other exchanges" telecommunications companies and members of Congress have had recently with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence regarding changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, according to Tuesday's court order. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said "all responsive, non-exempt documents" or anything required to be released under the Freedom of Information Act must be turned over by Dec. 10.

While EFF lawyer David Sobel acknowledged he's unsure what he'll learn from the documents, he said they should shed some light on why the companies believe they need protection.

"If you're a telephone company executive and you feel like you need this grant of immunity and you're contacting the director of national intelligence about it ... you're going to explain why it is you feel so strongly that you need this protection," he said.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the intelligence director, said the department doesn't comment on pending litigation, but "of course we comply with court orders."

The EFF suit against AT&T is just one of about two dozen suits against telecommunications companies over the wiretapping program. Those cases have been consolidated in San Francisco's federal appeals court.

The president confirmed last December the NSA has been conducting warrantless surveillance of calls and e-mails believed to involve al-Qaida terrorists if at least one of the parties to the communication is outside the U.S.

The administration contends the program is legal and necessary, but has been mum on whether purely domestic calls and electronic communications are being monitored.

FISA requires the government to obtain court approval before conducting electronic surveillance on U.S. soil, even if the target is a foreign citizen in a foreign country.