White House backtracks on claims of lost intelligence

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A day after warning that potentially critical terrorism intelligence was being lost because Congress had not finished work on a controversial espionage law, the U.S. attorney general and the national intelligence director said Saturday that the government was receiving the information -- at least temporarily.

On Friday evening, Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell had said in an unusually blunt letter to Congress that the nation “is now more vulnerable to terrorist attack and other foreign threats” because lawmakers had not yet acted on the administration’s proposal for the wiretapping law.

Terrorism intelligence: In Sunday’s Section A, a headline and sub-headline —"White House backtracks on lost intelligence: Officials acknowledge that telecom firms are furnishing all requested information” -- incorrectly characterized the administration’s action. As the article correctly said: Hours after Bush administration officials warned Congress in a letter that intelligence was being lost because wiretapping legislation was still pending, they informed lawmakers that they had prevailed on telecommunications companies to continue cooperating with requests for information while legislation talks continued, but that intelligence had been lost in the meantime.

But within hours of sending that letter, administration officials told lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees that they had prevailed upon all of the telecommunications companies to continue cooperating with the government’s requests for information while negotiations with Congress continue.

A statement describing the change was released Saturday.

The episode appeared to be another round in the battle between the White House and congressional Democrats over provisions of the proposed new Protect America Act, which would replace one that has expired.

The bill would expand the government’s eavesdropping authorities and protect telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc. from lawsuits over their cooperation with the intelligence community.

“We learned last night after sending [the original] letter that . . . new surveillances under existing directives issued pursuant to the Protect America Act will resume, at least for now,” Mukasey and McConnell said in the statement released Saturday.

“We appreciate the willingness of our private partners to cooperate despite the uncertainty.

“Unfortunately, the delay resulting from this discussion impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information,” Mukasey and McConnell added.

Government officials declined to comment on how much intelligence data may have been lost or how serious it might have been.

One Democratic congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, expressed skepticism that any significant gap had existed, noting that existing rules permit continued monitoring of known terrorists and their associates.

The Senate and House have passed their own versions of the surveillance legislation. Only the Senate bill provides retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies, a feature that has provoked resistance among some House Democrats.

The companies have been sued by plaintiffs contending that their cooperation with the government after Sept. 11 was without the permission of the government’s secret federal court and therefore illegal.

House Democrats say they want to reconcile differences in the bills rather than accept the Senate’s version, as administration officials have been pressuring them to do.

Democrats also have argued that the law’s expiration would not hobble surveillance of foreign-based terrorists or other enemies since recent orders issued to telephone companies under the law remain in effect for a year.

On Friday evening, administration officials told reporters in a conference call that at least one telecommunications company was refusing to provide information that could help track newly suspected terrorists.

But two hours later, administration officials notified congressional officials that the company had agreed to cooperate, according to the Democratic congressional official. As a result, all of the nation’s telecommunications companies are now providing all of the intelligence requested by the administration, even without the new law.

“This is serious backpedaling by the DNI,” the Democratic official said of McConnell. “He’s been saying for the last week that the sky is falling, and the sky is not falling.”

In his Saturday radio address, Bush called on Congress to quickly pass the wiretapping legislation when it returns Monday from a recess, saying telecommunications companies need the law to help the government monitor foreign terrorists and to protect them from class-action lawsuits.

“The House’s refusal to act is undermining our ability to get cooperation from private companies, and that undermines our effort to protect us from terrorist attacks,” Bush said in his second radio address in two weeks on the same issue.

The comments by Mukasey, McConnell and Bush were criticized by civil rights and privacy advocates, including Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“In an attempt to get sweeping powers to wiretap without warrants, Republicans are playing politics with domestic surveillance legislation,” Fredrickson said.