Buried on page A14 of today’s Washington Post is a story worthy of outrage and page-one coverage…and this buried nugget wasn’t even penned by Walter Pincus.
The Bush administration is urging Congress to pass a law that would halt dozens of lawsuits charging phone companies with invading ordinary citizens' privacy through a post-Sept. 11 warrantless surveillance program.
The measure is part of a legislative package drafted by the Justice Department to relax provisions in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that restrict the administration's ability to intercept electronic communications in the United States. If passed, the proposed changes would forestall efforts to compel disclosure of the program's details through Congress or the court system.
The proposal states that "no action shall lie . . . in any court, and no penalty . . . shall be imposed . . . against any person" for giving the government information, including customer records, in connection with alleged intelligence activity the attorney general certifies "is, was, would be or would have been" intended to protect the United States from terrorist attack. The measure, which has not yet been filed, is contained in a proposed amendment to the fiscal 2008 intelligence authorization bill.
The immunity measure has stoked controversy following public uproar over news reports of warrantless access to both telephone conversations and records as part of the administration's post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism policies. It is part of a larger debate about the proper balance between guarding national security and civil liberties and the extent to which private companies have acted as an arm of the federal government. In March, the Justice Department inspector general found that the FBI had secret contracts with three telephone companies to obtain Americans' phone records, claiming "exigent circumstances," when, in many instances, none existed.
This would have the effect of letting the telecom companies off the liability hook for facilitating the government’s domestic spying program and violating your civil liberties and mine.
The ACLU and other rights advocacy groups oppose the measure, while the government asserts that the only reason we have not been blow to bits and de-headed by terrorists is due to the patriots at AT&T who gave them access to our phone records.
Government lawyers crafted the immunity bill using terms deliberately vague in referring to activity that "would be or would have been" aimed at protecting the country from attack to avoid indicating whether a company cooperated.
But civil libertarians charged that blanket immunity would amount to a legislative pardon to telecommunications companies and others that have aided the government's warrantless surveillance, without explaining the pardon's basis.
"To let them off the hook now sets a dangerous precedent by encouraging them to continue to engage in illegal collaborations with the government in the future," said Kevin Bankston, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which last year filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, charging that the company allowed the government to unlawfully monitor U.S. residents.
The measure would gut Congress's efforts to conduct inquiries into the administration's surveillance program because a subpoenaed company or government official could invoke immunity, said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the government to force a halt to its wiretapping program.
The government asserts that the blanket immunity is necessary to protect sensitive national security information. "If companies are alleged to have cooperated with the government to protect our nation against another attack, they should not be held liable for any assistance they are alleged to have provided," Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said.
The immunity would be limited to assistance from Sept. 11, 2001, to the date the measure becomes law.
Yeah…this bunch has been so trustworthy and honest, a veritable Upright Citizens Brigade, that we should just go ahead and trust them on this…NOT!
Personally, I agree with Senator Ron Wyden of
Contact your elected representatives today and tell them to give this legislation the appropriate reception when it comes up: Roaring fucking laughter.