The top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that the nation’s courts may be the only way to determine if the White House violated wiretapping and privacy laws when it eavesdropped on Americans without court orders.

The senators remain reluctant to grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that allegedly helped.Legal protection for the companies is a top priority for President Bush, who has vowed to veto any eavesdropping bill that does not provide it.Telecommunications companies face about 40 civil lawsuits nationwide for alleged violations of wiretapping and surveillance laws at the Bush administration’s request. Another five lawsuits have been filed against the U.S. government.At issue is the interception of American e-mails and phone calls from 2001 to 2007. The so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program was conducted without the consent of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees intelligence agencies’ eavesdropping inside the United States.The Senate Intelligence Committee provided immunity in its version of a new eavesdropping bill. It bars civil lawsuits against telecommunications companies if the attorney general and national intelligence director certify that the companies acted on written orders approved by the president. The Judiciary panel still needs to act on the bill before it goes before the full Senate.Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he would agree to immunize telecommunications only if there is an effective way to scrutinize the Bush administration’s secret surveillance program.”The lawsuits … are perhaps the only avenue that exists for an outside review of the government’s program, an honest assessment of its legal arguments, especially as the Congress has for years been stonewalled on this program,” Leahy said at a committee hearing Wednesday.The committee’s senior Republican, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, said the courts are best equipped to rein in presidential powers. “In the long history of this country, the courts have done a much better job in protecting civil liberties than has the Congress from an overreaching executive branch,” he said.Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein said the lawsuits could financially cripple the telecommunications industry with billions in fines if they lost. He said even closed court hearings could harm national security by airing classified information. And he warned that terrorists could target companies accused in court.Wainstein told the committee that internal investigations are under way to determine if laws were broken.Four former Justice Department officials who tried to block a Bush administration surveillance order in a dramatic 2004 showdown at then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside all endorsed telecommunications immunity this week in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.”Given our experiences, we can certainly understand that reasonable people may question and wish to probe the legal bases for such intelligence activities,” states the letter signed by Ashcroft, James B. Comey, Patrick F. Philbin and Jack Goldsmith. “The best place for that examination and debate is not in a public lawsuit.”The White House has just this week granted the Senate Judiciary Committee access to the legal opinions and authorization letters justifying the program, which Leahy’s committee has sought for the last two years after the program was exposed by The New York Times.Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.