Senate to telecoms: You aren't immune–yet

By Martin Bosworth

Although this has already made its way around the blogosphere at lightning speed, I wanted to take a moment to note that the Senate Judiciary Committee has voted in favor of a FISA oversight improvement bill that does not contain immunity from prosecution for telecoms, and the whole of the House of Representatives voted for legislation that contains many more privacy safeguards for American citizens against warrantless surveillance.

Chris Dodd has promised to filibuster any legislation in the Senate that contains retroactive immunity for telecom companies, but (as the AP article notes) Arlen Specter is floating a compromise that would force (enable?) the government to step in as the liable party against the many lawsuits filed for damages from the illegal spying.

Now, this might seem sensible on its face–it was the government, after all, that approached the big telecoms like AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest and asked for their assistance in setting up the wiretaps and data mining. But if this happens, how much do you want to bet that the government would promptly invoke national security or the “state secrets” privilege to prevent any of those lawsuits from going forward? And is it even remotely fair to ask we, the taxpayers, to support the government’s efforts to defend itself from lawsuits it engendered by partnering with companies to spy on us? Seriously, think about it–we were spied upon illegally and were extensively data-mined for any possible links to terrorist enterprises. If the substitution provision occurs, our own tax dollars will be paying for the government’s attempt to defend itself from its own lawbreaking against us.


There’s a lot of political chicanery and turf fighting going on in the Senate over this sticking points. Glenn Greenwald, Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake, and MLDB at the Daily Kos have good roundups of how it all went down. Patrick Leahy, who generally has come down on the right side on issues relating to privacy and data mining, apparently was angry that the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Jay Rockefeller sold out to Bush’s demands for immunity and an essential blank check for warrantless spying. Dodd, in turn, was angry that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was intending to push forward on the bill despite Dodd’s placing a hold on the legislation. And where the inestimable Russ Feingold continued his fight to ensure immunity would not be granted, neophyte Dem Sheldon Whitehouse joined Bush enablers Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer in voting down Feingold’s provisions. It’s amazing to see that the Democrats are quite literally warring with each other over this issue.

Beyond the complex morass of politics and procedure, there is a simple point: Companies that willingly broke the law and violated Constitutional rights should be held accountable for their actions. These companies have some of the biggest legal divisions known to man. They thought they would be covered for their actions, and they’re running scared now that their crimes are out in the open. This should not be swept under the rug–period.

And Congress needs to be reminded of that in no uncertain terms.

4 replies »

  1. “. . . our own tax dollars will be paying for the government’s attempt to defend itself from its own lawbreaking against us.”

    Thanks, Martin. Haven’t seen that anywhere else.

    Why didn’t the telecoms’ lawyers warn them off warrantless spying? Or were they all represented by clones of Alberto Gonzalez?