A telco immunity bill gets a vote in the Senate. Barrack Obama approves three failed amendments to hold carriers responsible, but approves the final bill. John McCain skips the telco immunity vote.
After a morning of fiery debate, the U.S. Senate voted July 9 to grant
retroactive immunity to telephone companies that participated in the White
House's warrantless domestic spying program. The 69-28 vote came after the
Senate defeated three amendments all aimed at either removing or modifying the
immunity provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama voted for the three amendments
to let civil lawsuits proceed against the carriers but voted for the overall
bill. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain was not present
for the vote.
The House approved
the legislation June 20.
The bill now heads to President Bush, who is
expected to sign it.
The bill essentially provides the telephone companies legal protection from
more than 40 civil lawsuits claiming the carriers provided customer telephone
and e-mail records of millions of U.S.
citizens-often without a warrant or subpoena-to the government.
"The companies acted in good faith, no matter the legality," said Sen.
Kit Bond, R-Mo. "The companies acted on documentation provided by the
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence
Committee, said civil actions should be properly directed against government
officials who directed the program. "We need to protect the companies that
provided the intercept and collection. The government is the issue, not them."
Rockefeller added, "I am convinced the bill takes the right approach."
Under the new FISA bill, a district court will review the authorizations the
White House used to induce telephone carriers to participate in the program. If
the court determines the authorizations existed, the civil cases pending
against the carriers would not proceed.
"This is a matter for the courts to decide, not the legislative branch,"
said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "Let the courts decide this issue. It is not
the place of the U.S. Senate."
Dodd has led the opposition to the telco immunity for more than a year.
"Some may argue that in fact the companies received documentation from the
administration stating that the president authorized the wiretapping program
and that therefore it was legal," Dodd said. "These advocates will
argue that the mere existence of documentation justifies retroactive immunity-that
because a document was received, companies should be retroactively exonerated
of all wrongdoing."
Dodd called that logic flawed.
"The question is, were their actions legal? It's a rather
straightforward and surprisingly uncomplicated question," Dodd said. "Did
the companies break the law? Either the companies complied with the law as it
was at the time, or they didn't."
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. Bush
had promised to veto any FISA legislation that did not include immunity for the
said in February
that without immunity for the carriers, "We may not
be able to secure the private sector's cooperation with our intelligence
efforts. If you cooperate with the government and then get sued for billions of
dollars because of the cooperation, you're less likely to cooperate. And
obviously we're going to need people working with us to find out what the enemy
is saying and thinking and plotting and planning."
The New York
Times first broke the story of the administration's warrantless
wiretapping in late 2005, and USA
Today later reported that the National Security Agency is using
information provided by telephone carriers to mine 10s of millions of calling
records for data.