Washington The Bush administration wants the power to grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that are slapped with privacy suits for cooperating with the White House's controversial warrantless eavesdropping program.
The authority would effectively shut down dozens of lawsuits filed against telecommunications companies accused of helping set up the program.
The vaguely worded proposal would shield any person who allegedly provided information, infrastructure or "any other form of assistance" to the intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. It covers any classified communications activity intended to protect the country from terrorism.
Republicans say immunity is necessary to protect the companies that responded to legal presidential orders to thwart terrorists in the years after 9/11. Yet some Democrats fear the administration's proposal would do much more than advertised, potentially protecting anyone who gave broad categories of aid to the government as part of a spy program that monitors communications.
Because the administration does not want to identify which companies participated in the operations, it is asking Congress to let the attorney general intervene on behalf of any person or company accused of participating in the surveillance work, whether or not they actually did, two senior Justice Department officials said.
More than a dozen government officials interviewed for this story spoke on condition they not be identified because sensitive negotiations with Congress are ongoing.
One of the officials said the defendants in suits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union - Verizon and AT&T; - would be the key beneficiaries of the proposed legislation.
There is a divide among Capitol Hill's majority Democrats about whether the companies deserve any protection. Some believe they were operating in good faith, on orders that appeared to be lawful. Others believe lawyers at the companies had a responsibility to ensure the requests weren't an abuse of presidential power.
National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell considers the issue a key element of any legislation that Congress considers this fall to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA.
"If you play out the suits at the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these companies," McConnell told the El Paso (Texas) Times in an interview posted online last week.
The companies could face civil penalties of at least $1,000 per customer, for a total that would reach well into the billions.