President Bush praised the Senate for approving retroactive immunity for telecommunications carriers that participated in the White House's warrantless spying program and urged the House to follow suit.
The immunity issue was part of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), approved by the Senate late on Feb. 12. The carriers allegedly provided customer telephone and e-mail records-often without a warrant or subpoena-to the government.
However, the House approved FISA legislation in November that did not include immunity for the carriers. The differences between the two chambers must be reconciled before the FISA renewal can be sent to Bush's desk. The current FISA law expires Feb. 16.
"I am pleased that last night, senators approved new legislation that will ensure our intelligence professionals have the tools they need to make us safer," Bush said from the White House. "The Senate bill also provides fair and just liability protections for companies that did the right thing and assisted in defending America after the attacks of September the 11th."
The carriers claim they acted on authority from the highest levels of government, including the White House, to provide the government access to consumers' personal telephone calls and e-mail. Bush has vowed to veto any FISA bill that does not contain immunity for the carriers.
The carriers' cooperation with the government prompted more than 40 civil lawsuits claiming the carriers violated the constitutional rights of Americans.
"In order to be able to discover the enemy‑the enemy's plans-we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies," Bush said. "If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate; they won't help us; they won't help protect America."
Before the Senate vote on telco immunity, House Democrats vowed to fight any legal relief for the carriers.
"Congress does not need to rush into a decision over granting immunity to phone companies that chose to cooperate with the president's warrentless wiretapping program," U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a Feb. 8 letter to his House colleagues. "As long as the administration refuses to give us a relevant debriefing, we should refuse to legislate in a vacuum."
According to Markey, "The only reason the administration is trying to force a snap decision now is because of their own desire to avoid scrutiny by either the courts or the Congress in their final months of power."
Bush insisted that both the Senate and the House have had enough time to debate the issue. Late in January, Bush agreed to a 15-day extension of the expiring FISA legislation. The president said Feb. 13 he's not interested in any more delays.
"I will not accept any temporary extension. House members have had plenty of time to pass a good bill," he said. "Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate. The time for debate is over."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the co-lead counsel in the nearly 40 pending lawsuits against the major telephone carriers, contends the carriers broke the law by providing the National Security Agency with the full content of billions of e-mails, text messages and VOIP (voice over IP) calls. The EFF claims it is an issue for the courts to decide.
The carriers insist that the real issue is between the White House and Congress. "Current law ... provides a complete defense to any provider who in good faith relies on a statutory authorization," AT&T wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to lawmakers. "If the government advises a private company that a disclosure is authorized by statute, a presumption of regularity attaches."