John Ashcroft Avoids Caller ID

The nation's telecommunications companies want immunity from lawsuits related to their participation in President Bush's warrantless-surveillance program, and to get it, they've been mounting an aggressive Capitol Hill lobbying campaign. Last week they played what they hoped would be their trump card: a letter backing their position from ex-attorney-general John Ashcroft and three other former top Justice officials. The quartet seemed to have special credibility on the issue: they had all once threatened to resign because of concerns about the top-secret spying program's legality. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called the letter "very interesting," adding that the telecoms deserved protection from costly lawsuits for their service to the intelligence community.

But the correspondence left out some pertinent details. Ashcroft's consulting firm, the Ashcroft Group, registered last year to lobby for AT&T—one of the three big telecoms, along with Verizon and Sprint, spear-heading the lobbying campaign. Patrick Philbin, who joined James Comey and Jack Goldsmith as cosigners on the letter, was a principal outside lawyer for Verizon prior to joining the Justice Department in 2001; he's now a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, whose Web site lists Verizon as one of its main clients. "I find this very troubling," says Cindy Cohen, chief counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has sued AT&T in San Francisco. "They ought to be writing letters to Congress about what the administration was doing wrong rather than trying to cover it up."

A spokeswoman for Ashcroft, Juleanna Glover, says the former A.G. has done "no work" personally lobbying for AT&T on the telecom immunity issue. His firm, she says, was hired as a "strategic consultant" on other matters, principally related to state regulatory disputes. Glover said that Ashcroft wrote the letter in his capacity as the former A.G. and because he believes it outlines a "principled position" for Congress. Philbin did not respond to requests for comment. But an associate of his, who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities, says that Philbin disclosed his legal work for Verizon in a brief bio he presented to the Judiciary Committee prior to his testimony about the issue. In any case, says the associate, "there aren't a lot of lawyers in this town who don't do some kind of work for the telecoms."