Three U.S. senators with an eye on the White House said this week that they oppose granting immunity to telecom carriers that allegedly participated in the Bush administrations domestic spying program of telephone wiretapping and e-mail surveillance.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said Oct. 18 he would block the Senates FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) reform legislation, which contains an offer of immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the administration. Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) also condemned the immunity clause in the bill.
“The president has no right to secretly eavesdrop on the conversations and activities of law-abiding American citizens, and anyone who has aided and abetted him in these illegal activities should be held accountable,” Dodd said in a statement, in Washington.
“It is unconscionable that such a basic right has been violated, and that the president is the perpetrator. I will do everything in my power to stop Congress from shielding this presidents agenda of secrecy, deception and blatant unlawfulness,” he said.
The New York Times first broke the story of the administrations warrantless wiretapping in late 2005 and USA Today later reported that the NSA (National Security Agency) is using information provided by telephone carriers to mine tens of millions of calling records for data. President Bush has admitted to the warrantless wiretapping and e-mail eavesdropping.
As part of a renewal of the FISA Act, Bush has pushed for immunity for the telecom carriers. The House version of the bill currently includes no immunity for the carriers, but the Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation Oct. 17 that includes immunity.
“It is time to restore oversight and accountability in the FISA program, and this proposal—with an unprecedented grant of retroactive immunity—is not the place to start,” Obama, also in Washington, said in a statement issued shortly after Dodd said he would put a hold on the bill, a maneuver often performed by lawmakers who oppose a bill.
Other Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, have not stated a position on immunity for telecom carriers.
Verizon Communications and AT&T, the two carriers most often mentioned as participating in the domestic spying program, point out they are under a federal order to not disclose any information about their activities.
“The United States, through a sworn declaration from the Director of National Intelligence, has formally invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent AT&T from confirming or denying certain facts about alleged intelligence operations and activities that are central to your investigation,” Wayne Watts, general counsel for AT&T, based in San Antonio, wrote Oct. 12 to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
While not admitting to their participation, Verizon and AT&T contend that if they were a part of it, they acted legally in reliance on existing federal, state and local laws. Additionally, they contend, the dispute is between the White House and Congress.
“Our company essentially finds itself caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities,” AT&T wrote to lawmakers Oct. 12.
Read more here about how Congressional Democrats are pushing for disclosures about government wiretapping activities.
“Applicable legal rules make clear that much of the information you seek is under control of the executive and that disputes of this kind need to be resolved through accommodation between the two political branches of the government,” AT&T wrote.
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