December 17, 2007

Telecom Immunity Gets Bipartisan Support

The FISA reform bill that contains immunity for telecommunication companies that assisted the NSA on national security hurdled a procedural obstacle today on a clear bipartisan vote. The Senate invoked cloture on the bill with 76 votes, sixteen more than needed to proceed to a vote this week. Although some Democrats will attempt to attach amendments that will derail telecom immunity, the effort appears all but lost:

President George W. Bush's demand for immunity for telephone companies that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program won an initial victory on Monday in the U.S. Senate.

On a vote of 76-10, far more than the 60 needed, the Democratic-led Senate cleared a procedural hurdle and began considering a bill to increase congressional and judicial oversight of electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists.

It includes a provision to grant retroactive immunity to any telecommunications company that took part in Bush's spying program -- surveillance without court warrants of e-mails and telephone calls of people in the United States -- begun shortly after the September 11 attacks. ....

Backers of immunity, who include some Democrats as well many of Bush's fellow Republicans, contend companies should be thanked, not punished, for helping defend the United States.

The immunity in this legislation has clear restrictions. They have to have agreed to the assistance after receiving assurances from the Department of Justice that the programs complied with the law. It leaves other telecoms open to lawsuits without that positive assurance of a lack of liability for cooperation.

This makes sense, especially going forward in finding and ending terrorist plots against the nation. The NSA and other federal agencies need the cooperation of the telecoms in that mission. If the private sector cannot rely on the Department of Justice's word on legality, then it cannot provide any kind of assistance without risking lawsuits -- and the NSA would also then have to expose classified programs and damage our ability to prevent attacks. We will once again leave ourselves on a course to have another self-flagellation session about not connecting dots after the next terrorist attack.

It does not appear that the immunity opponents will have much luck in stopping it. Even though Chris Dodd has used his flailing presidential run to highlight the cause, he has no hope of collecting the 60 votes necessary to amend the bill. In fact, now that the bill has passed cloture, it only requires 51 votes for passage, and it already has almost 50% more votes than that. The telecoms will get their immunity, and the FISA reform compromise will finally pass Congress.


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