Telco Immunity Controversy Fires Up Again

Cheney pushes for immunity while a lawmaker promises a filibuster to stop legislation. 

It didn't take long for the telecommunications immunity issue to fire up again on Capitol Hill.

Just one day after the Senate returned to work after a long holiday break, the White House trotted out Vice President Dick Cheney Jan. 23 to press lawmakers to give the nation's largest telecommunications providers a pass for their alleged participation in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

Just as quickly, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn, vowed to fight any effort to grant immunity to the carriers. In December, Dodd led a 10-hour floor fight against immunity that ultimately forced Majority Leader Harry Reid to pull the legislation.

"The law should uphold an important principle: that those who assist the government in tracking terrorists should not be punished with lawsuits," Cheney told the Heritage Foundation.

The immunity issue is tied to a renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expires Feb. 1. The House Nov. 16 refused to retroactively grant immunity when it approved a FISA revision known as the Protect America Act. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved telco immunity as part of its FISA bill, while the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for no immunity.

Click here to read more about the Senate pulling the telco immunity vote.

"We're asking Congress to update FISA and especially to extend this protection to communications providers alleged to have given such assistance any time after Sept. 11, 2001," Cheney said. "This is an important consideration, because some providers are facing dozens of lawsuits right now."

Bush is pushing Congress to grant immunity to the carriers that agreed to turn over customer telephone and e-mail records-often without a warrant or subpoena-to the government. Bush has promised to veto any legislation that does not grant immunity to the telephone companies.

Verizon, AT&T and Qwest Communications International all contend they relied on existing federal, state and local laws. The carriers are also under a federal court order to neither confirm nor deny their participation in the program.

"We're dealing here with matters of the utmost sensitivity. It's not even proper to confirm whether any given company provided assistance," Cheney said. "But we can speak in general terms. The fact is, the intelligence community doesn't have the facilities to carry out the kind of international surveillance needed to defend this country since 9/11."

However, Dodd contends that granting the telcos immunity would erode civil liberties.

"If after debate, the Senate appears ready to pass legislation granting telecom providers retroactive immunity, I will use any and all legislative tools at my disposal, including a filibuster, to prevent this deeply flawed bill from becoming law," Dodd said in floor remarks Jan. 23.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the co-lead counsel in the nearly 40 pending lawsuits against the major telephone carriers, agrees with Dodd that 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.

"More and more, Americans are rejecting the false choice that has come to define this administration: security or liberty, but never, ever both," Dodd said.

Josh Silver, executive director of the public policy advocacy group Free Press, said in a Jan. 24 statement that "when you break the law you should face the consequences. Phone companies are supposed to deliver our messages, not spy on them."