Obama, McCain Face Telco Immunity Vote

The best part of having sitting senators as presidential candidates is that on occasion they have to, well, vote on issues. Instead of providing only hollow campaign rhetoric, they have to actually stand up and be counted.

As early as next week, Obama and McCain will have to face the music on telephone company immunity. Obama has already voted once against granting telcos like AT&T and Verizon a free pass over their participation in the Bush administration's warrantless domestic spying program. McCain has waffled on the issue.

But Congress is attempting to duck the hard call in its latest proposal for how to deal with the potential civil liabilities for the telcos that tapped phones and snooped on users' e-mail without a warrant. According to the Wall Street Journal:

"The new agreement broadens the authority to spy on people in the U.S. and provides conditional legal immunity to companies that helped the government eavesdrop after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to congressional aides in both parties.The agreement would also pave the way for companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to shed the nearly 40 lawsuits they face for allegedly participating in a prior version of the NSA program, which have cast a shadow over their reputation on Wall Street and Main Street. To win immunity, they would have to pass review from a U.S. District Court."

The draft copy (PDF) of the new FISA bill spells it out bluntly in a compromise supported by the White House:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a civil action may not lie or be maintained in a Federal or State court against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community, and shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the district court of the United States in which such action is pending that ... the assistance alleged to have been provided by the electronic communication service provider was in connection with an intelligence activity involving communications that was authorized by the President during the period beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on January 17, 2007."

The big question for Obama and McCain is whether they will act like typical lawmakers and race to hide under the cover of this legislation. The betting here is that McCain will do exactly that. Obama is a less sure bet, but it will be interesting to see if he really meant it when he originally voted against any immunity for the carriers.