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US confirms key role of telecom firms in wiretapping

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has confirmed for the first time that American telecommunications companies played a crucial role in the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program after asserting for more than a year that any role played by the companies was a state secret.

The acknowledgement was made in an unusual interview that Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, conducted with The El Paso Times last week in which he disclosed details on classified intelligence issues that the administration has long insisted would harm national security if discussed publicly.

He made the remarks, an apparent effort to bolster support for the broadened wiretapping authority Congress approved this month, even as Democrats are threatening to rework the legislation. They say it gives the executive branch too much power.

It is vital, McConnell said, for Congress to give retroactive legal immunity to the companies that assisted in the NSA eavesdropping program to help prevent them from facing bankruptcy because of lawsuits over the program.

"Under the president's program, the terrorist surveillance program, the private sector had assisted us, because if you're going to get access, you've got to have a partner," McConnell said in the interview, a transcript of which The El Paso Times posted online Wednesday.

AT&T and several major carriers are being sued over their role in the program -- which permitted eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of Americans suspected of terrorist ties -- but the administration had sought to shut down the lawsuits by invoking the state secrets privilege, refusing to confirm whether the firms helped conduct the wiretaps.

McConnell, who took over as the country's top intelligence official in February, warned that the public discussion generated by the congressional debate over the wiretapping legislation threatened to harm national security because it would alert terrorists to US surveillance methods.

"The fact we're doing it this way means that some Americans are going to die," he said, referring to the media coverage and the public debate in Congress.

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