WASHINGTON - When Mark Klein, then an AT&T technician in San Francisco, stumbled on a secret room apparently reserved for the National Security Agency inside an AT&T switching center, he hardly expected to be caught up in a national debate over the proper balance between American civil liberties and national security.
But four years later, Mr. Klein's discovery has led to a spate of class-action lawsuits against the nation's largest telephone companies. The threat posed to the telecommunications industry by those suits has prompted the Bush administration to push Congress to grant companies legal immunity for their secret cooperation in the N.S.A.'s program of eavesdropping without warrants. With many Democrats in Congress seemingly willing to grant the legal protection, Mr. Klein has come to Washington to fight back.
Mr. Klein, 62 and now retired, will begin meeting Wednesday with staff members on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees to try to persuade them to put a brake on the immunity legislation. He says the phone companies do not deserve the legal protection.
"I think they committed a massive violation not only of the law but of the Constitution," he said. "That's not the way the Fourth Amendment is supposed to work."
The administration and other supporters of immunity say the companies should get it because they were acting under what they believed to be lawful orders from the government. The administration also argues that if the lawsuits, coordinated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group know as EEF, are allowed to proceed, they could reveal national security secrets, and so the Justice Department has sought to block them by using the "state secrets privilege."
A spokesman for Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, declined to comment on Tuesday.
In 2002, Mr. Klein was working as a technician in AT&T's Geary Street facility in San Francisco when he was told that an N.S.A. agent would be visiting the office to interview another AT&T employee for a special job. He later learned that the job was at an AT&T facility on Folsom Street.
In early 2003, Mr. Klein took a tour of the Folsom Street office, where he saw a secret room under construction. By October 2003, he was transferred to that office, and he said he learned that only employees cleared by the security agency were allowed to enter the room.
Mr. Klein was responsible for maintaining Internet switching equipment near the secret room, and said he was stunned to discover that special "splitter" equipment had been installed in his area to route copies of all Internet traffic diverted through his lines into the secret room.
"What I saw is that everything's flowing across the Internet to this government-controlled room," he said.
Later, Mr. Klein obtained three AT&T documents that he said revealed the computer and equipment design for the room - documents that the company maintains he kept improperly after leaving AT&T in 2004. Those designs, according to Mr. Klein and other telecommunications specialists who have reviewed them, would give the security agency. the ability to sift and reroute international and domestic communications and data from the AT&T lines to another site.
"The physical apparatus gives them everything," Mr. Klein said, adding, "A lot of this was domestic."
Ever since the N.S.A. eavesdropping program was publicly disclosed in December 2005, the administration has said that it was limited to intercepting, without seeking court orders, the international calls and e-mail messages of people inside the United States suspected of terrorist ties.
EFF, which brought Mr. Klein to Washington to plead his case, is fearful that Congress will pass an immunity bill just as its class-action lawsuit has made some progress in a federal court in California. A judge there has refused to throw out the lawsuits, and an appellate court is now weighing a government appeal. In a ruling released Tuesday, the district judge hearing the case, Vaughn Walker, ordered that no documents or evidence in it be altered or destroyed. The government had opposed that motion.
Administration officials have insisted that the lawsuits, if allowed to proceed, threatens to bankrupt the phone carriers. But Cindy Cohn, staff lawyer for EFF, said its main objective was to get the courts to rule on the legality of the eavesdropping program, which the group maintains violates the Constitution.
"I don't want to bankrupt the phone companies," Ms. Cohn said. "That's not what this is about."
© 2007 The New York Times