WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President George W. Bush won a test vote in the U.S. Senate on Thursday on his demand that any telephone company that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program receive immunity from lawsuits.
On a vote of 60-36, the Senate rejected an alternative proposal, which would bolster protection of privacy rights of U.S. citizens without shielding phone companies from lawsuits.
Nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating Americans’ privacy rights in helping the government’s warrantless domestic spying program.
Immunity foes contend that the courts should decide if the companies violated the law. And in doing so, they say, the courts would examine what Bush did in secretly ordering warrantless electronic surveillance shortly after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Supporters of immunity contend companies acted in good faith to protect the United States and should not be punished. “They relied on the legal conclusion of this nation’s most senior law enforcement official and they provided assistance because they wanted to help stop terrorist attacks,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who is a chief sponsor of the bill and a leading proponent of immunity.
From Wired Blog Network:
Top Verizon executives, including CEO Ivan Seidenberg and President Dennis Strigl, wrote personal checks to Rockefeller totaling $23,500 in March, 2007. Prior to that apparently coordinated flurry of 29 donations, only one of those executives had ever donated to Rockefeller (at least while working for Verizon).
In fact, prior to 2007, contributions to Rockefeller from company executives at AT&T and Verizon were mostly non-existent.
But that changed around the same time that the companies began lobbying Congress to grant them retroactive immunity from lawsuits seeking billions for their alleged participation in secret, warrantless surveillance programs that targeted Americans.
The Spring ’07 checks represent 86 percent of money donated to Rockefeller by Verizon employees since at least 2001.
AT&T executives discovered a fondness for Rockefeller just a month after Verizon execs did and over a three-month span, collectively made donations totaling $19,350.
AT&T Vice President Fred McCallum began the giving spree in May with a $500 donation. 22 other AT&T high fliers soon followed with their own checks.
Prior to that burst of generosity, the only AT&T employee donation to Rockefeller was a $300 contribution in 2001. That supporter did not identify herself as a company executive.
Rockefeller’s commitment to getting the telecoms out of court surprises some who remember that Rockefeller was originally disturbed enough about the secret spying programs that he hand-wrote a letter to Dick Cheney in 2003, expressing his concerns about the program’s legality.
From PC World:
Civil liberties and media reform group Free Press called on the U.S. Congress to reject bills that would give retroactive legal immunity to telecommunication carriers that helped the government monitor phone calls and e-mail after Vice President Dick Cheney pushed for the legislation.
Cheney and the White House this week pushed Congress to extend the surveillance authorization bill, the Protect America Act, which expires on Feb. 1. Cheney, speaking last week at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, also called on Congress to grant legal immunity to telecom carriers that participated in a U.S. National Security Agency program that allowed the NSA to intercept communications of some U.S. residents without court authorization.
AT&T and other telecom carriers are being sued in U.S. court in San Francisco by civil liberties groups and individuals who allege that the surveillance program is illegal.
Free Press countered Cheney’s remarks by saying telecom carriers should be held accountable for illegal spying.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called the Protect America Act, the “Police America Act.” The legislation “allows for massive, untargeted collection of international communications without court order or meaningful oversight by either Congress or the courts,” the ACLU says on its Web site. “It contains virtually no protections for the U.S. end of the phone call or e-mail, leaving decisions about the collection, mining and use of Americans’ private communications up to this administration.”
Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said Wednesday he’ll block the legislation with a filibuster if it comes to the Senate floor with telecom immunity provisions attached.
Go, Senator Dodd, go!! You should have been a contender!