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Senate preparing to fold on telecom immunity: reports
Nick Juliano
Published: Thursday October 11, 2007

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This week's much touted rebuke to immunity-seeking telecommunications companies may be scrapped as Senate Democrats are appearing ever more ready to accede to President Bush's demands.

Reports are emerging that the Senate is preparing to introduce a foreign surveillance law update that would shield telecommunications companies from litigation or prosecution over their assistance in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program instituted after Sept. 11.

Based on a tip from the ACLU, Firedoglake reported a draft proposal being quietly circulated in the Senate "does contain legal immunity/amnesty for the telecom companies" that would include any of its actions over the last six years.

President Bush vowed Wednesday not to sign a bill that doesn't spare prosecution for the telecommunications industry, and House Democratic leaders have indicated they may grant immunity if Bush's administration agrees to detail the companies' involvement in the wiretapping program.

The House moved its surveillance law update out of committee last week, and the Senate has not yet announced when its bill will drop. A spokeswoman for the Senate Intelligence Committee did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.

The Bush administration pushed for telecom immunity to be included in a six-month update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but Democrats managed to strip that provision from the bill. Now civil libertarians and privacy advocates are urging Democrats to continue to stand up to the administration's demands.

"If they didn’t do anything wrong, why should they get retroactive immunity?" asks Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake. "And, worse, if it is likely that they broke laws, why on earth would the Senate just hand lawbreakers retroactive immunity before fact-finding on potential criminal conduct was even completed?!?  That makes no logical or ethical sense." Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, who also has been closely following the FISA debate, criticizes Washington columnists and pundits for agreeing with Bush administration claims about the law.

"If one actually thinks about, from scratch, what is being considered with this FISA law, it really is extraordinary. The very idea that we ought to allow the government new powers to eavesdrop on our calls and emails without warrants -- particularly since we know that they have been breaking the law for years to do just that -- is unfathomable," Greenwald writes.

"And even more unfathomable is the idea that the Congress would pass a law that has no purpose other than to protect from all legal consequences the largest and most powerful corporations in the event that they are found to have broken our nation's surveillance and privacy laws.. What possible justification is there for any of that? Those twin prongs simultaneously eviscerate the rule of law, equality under the law, and the core Fourth Amendment protections the Founders guaranteed."

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are encouraging their members to lobby Congress against telecom immunity.

Another focus has been the House proposal's authorization of "basket warrants" aimed at foreign suspects that could ensnare untold numbers of Americans' calls and e-mails abroad. Basket warrants were included in the House provision, and progressive lawmakers are deciding how hard to push to have that aspect of the law eliminated, TPM Election Central reported. Calls to House progressive caucus members were not immediately returned.

The ACLU called the basket warrants "the modern-day equivalent of allowing government agents to sit in our living rooms, recording our personal conversations."