GOP Revives Telco Immunity Push

U.S. House Republicans are circulating a petition to force a new vote on legal immunity for telcos that aided government electronic surveillance.

U.S. House Republicans turned to obscure procedural maneuvers April 23, aiming to revive a vote on the Senate version of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) that includes immunity for the telephone companies that participated in the White House's domestic surveillance program.

In March, the House approved a version of FISA with no immunity for those carriers.

Since the House passed its version of the FISA renewal, the Senate and the House have been unable to reach a compromise. President Bush has vowed to veto any legislation that does not include immunity for the carriers.

The law itself, meanwhile, has expired, although FBI Director Robert Mueller testified April 23 that he was unaware of any wiretaps being imperiled or denied since the Act lapsed.

House Democrats have set a Memorial Day target date to complete a FISA compromise with the Senate.

"The American people should not have to wait one day more for the House to act," Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., said in a statement. "It was 67 days ago that House Democrats allowed the [Act] to expire, placing our nation at greater risk of terrorist attack."

Putnam, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said GOP House members were circulating what is known as a "discharge petition," which could force a vote on the bill without the approval of House Democratic leaders. Republicans need 219 signatures to force the vote.

"If ... the 21 rank-and-file House Democrats who have previously expressed support for the Senate FISA bill join us in signing this discharge petition, there may yet be a chance to do the right thing to keep our country safe," Putnam said.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, urged Democratic lawmakers to hold fast.

"The House stood strong last month and we expect it to do so again," Frederickson said in a statement. "The bottom line here is that we are nine months away from a new president. There is no reason for this Congress to hand this administration a going-away present of unfettered and warrantless wiretapping."

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. The carriers' cooperation with the government prompted more than 40 civil lawsuits claiming that the carriers violated constitutional rights.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the co-lead counsel in many of the civil cases, maintains 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 says it is an issue for the courts to decide.

The telcos 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."