New Bill Would Revoke Telco Immunity

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-09-29 Print this article Print

Sen. Chris Dodd leads a charge to repeal 2008 legislation that granted immunity to telephone companies that allegedly assisted in domestic spying by U.S. intelligence agencies. The Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act joins the JUSTICE Act introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold.

Four U.S. senators led by Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd plan to introduce the Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act, which would repeal the law that Congress passed in July 2008 granting immunity to telephone companies that allegedly assisted in domestic spying by U.S. intelligence agencies. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, Russ Feingold and Jeff Merkley.

The telcos contend that they relied on existing federal, state and local laws and assurances from the highest level of government when providing access to consumers' personal telephone calls and e-mail without a subpoena.

President Obama has asked Congress to renew the Patriot Act but said he was open to revisions in the legislation.

"I believe we best defend America when we also defend its founding principles," Dodd said in a statement. "We make our nation safer when we eliminate the false choice between liberty and security. But by granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who may have participated in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, the Congress violated the protection of our citizen's privacy and due process right and we must not allow that to stand."

Dodd and the bill's co-sponsors said in a Sept. 28 statement they believe that "the courts, and neither Congress nor the Administration, should be the ones to determine whether these corporations violated the law and rights of Americans and whether or not they should be held accountable."

"Granting retroactive immunity to companies that went along with the illegal warrantless wiretapping program was unjustified and undermined the rule of law," Feingold said. "Congress should not have short-circuited the courts' constitutional role in assessing the legality of the program. This bill is about ensuring that the law is followed and providing accountability for the American people."

The legislation joins the JUSTICE Act (Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools in Counterterrorism Efforts) introduced by Feingold Sept. 17, seeking to "reform the USA Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act and other surveillance authorities to protect Americans' constitutional rights while preserving the powers of our government to fight terrorism."

Then-President Bush had promised to veto any FISA legislation that did not include immunity for the carriers. Obama, then serving as a U.S. senator, voted for the legislation granting immunity to the carriers.


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