Lawmakers Revive Effort to Deny Retroactive Telecom Immunity

With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire and the White House seeking renewal, legislators are proposing a bill that would repeal immunity for telecommunications companies spying on U.S. citizens without warrants.

With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of 2009, some U.S. senators hope to amend the controversial law by repealing the retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies approved by Congress in 2008. The law forgives telecom companies that spied on U.S. citizens' e-mail without a proper warrant.

The JUSTICE (Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools In Counterterrorism Efforts) Act would "reform the USA Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act and other surveillance authorities to protect Americans' constitutional rights, while preserving the powers of our government to fight terrorism," the bill's sponsors said in a statement Sept. 17.

President Obama has asked Congress to renew the Patriot Act but said he is open to revisions in the legislation.

"Every single member of Congress wants to give our law enforcement and intelligence officials the tools they need to keep Americans safe," Sen. Russ Feingold said in the statement. "The JUSTICE Act permits the government to conduct necessary surveillance, but within a framework of accountability and oversight. It ensures both that our government has the tools to keep us safe and that the privacy and civil liberties of innocent Americans will be protected."
The telecom companies 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.
Then-President Bush had promised to veto any FISA legislation that did not include immunity for the carriers. Obama, then serving as a U.S. senator, voted for the legislation granting immunity to the carriers.
"As we move toward reauthorization of the Patriot Act, we're proposing common-sense changes to better protect our most basic constitutional rights. Our bill strikes a careful balance between the law enforcement powers needed to combat terrorism and the legal protections required to safeguard American liberties," said Sen. Richard Durbin.
Other sponsors of the bill are Sens. Jon Tester, Tom Udall, Jeff Bingaman, Bernie Sanders, Daniel Akaka and Ron Wyden. The Senate Judiciary is expected to take up the Patriot Act reauthorization Sept. 23.