McCain Hangs Up on Telco Immunity

No matter who wins the presidency this fall, telecoms like AT&T and Verizon should expect no White House immunity for the warrantless wiretapping of Americans' phone calls and e-mail. President Bush, by contrast, has promised to veto any legislation that does not give amnesty for the telcos' cooperation in the administration's domestic spying program.

While Democratic opposition to Bush's amnesty ideas is well known (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted against the measure in a February Senate vote), Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who ducked the February vote, now appears to be on-board with the anti-amnesty crowd.

At a May 21 appearance at the 18th Annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference at Yale University, the McCain campaign's top legal advisor said a McCain presidency would demand Congressional "hearings to find out what actually happened and what harms actually occurred."

Chuck Fish, a former Time Warner executive who recently resigned to join the McCain campaign, added that McCain would expect, in addition to hearings to find out exactly just what the telecoms did, contrition from the telecoms.

"First, we need to be explicit we are not talking about granting indulgences," Fish said. As Wired's Ryan Singel reported, Fish's indulgencies statement meant, "forgiveness must be matched with repentance."

The telcos contend 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 the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), the co-lead counsel in many of the civil cases, maintains that the carriers broke the law by providing the NSA (National Security Agency) with the full content of billions of e-mails, text messages and VOIP (voice over IP) calls. The EFF claims the issue of the telcos' liability should be a matter for the courts to decide.

"EFF wishes more Republicans would recognize, as their presidential nominee does, that immunity should not even be considered until Congress has made an extensive investigation into the particulars of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program," the EFF said in a May 21 statement.

The digital civil liberties group added, "Immunity certainly shouldn't be granted if the phone companies refuse to admit to and apologize for their role in the NSA spying."