An Ex-A.G. Avoids Caller Id

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Isikoff

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. Ash-croft'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. …