February 12, 2008

Senate Approves Telecom Immunity

The Senate handily defeated an attempt to strip immunity for telecommunications providers from their version of FISA reform this morning, and approved the overall legislation. The amendment to strip telecom immunity only garnered 31 votes, far short of even a simple majority. The bill now goes to the House, which has resisted the immunity provisions:

The Senate voted Tuesday to shield from lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

After nearly two months of stops and starts, the Senate rejected by a vote of 31 to 67 an amendment that would have stripped a grant of retroactive immunity to the companies. President Bush has promised to veto any new surveillance bill that does not protect the companies that helped the government in its warrantless wiretapping program. ...

In a separate voice vote Tuesday, the Senate expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping of Americans. The amendment would give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.

This seems like a good and productive compromise. The Democrats had a legitimate point about handing a blank check to the NSA and other intel agencies in regards to warrantless surveillance. We need to give the maximum amount of flexibility and responsiveness to our front-line efforts, but we also need to ensure that they follow the rules and do not abuse their power. Congress should provide for as much oversight as possible without interfering with gathering of intelligence from terrorists.

Telecom immunity should have never taken this long to approve. The immunity covers companies who received assurances from the Department of Justice that their cooperation broke no laws, and they cooperated to help defend the US from attack. Their reward for trust and assistance should not be billion-dollar class-action lawsuits, which would have been nothing more than a back-door attempt to kneecap intelligence operations that kept this nation safe for more than six years after 9/11.

The House has to put this bill into motion now, and the clock is ticking. The Democrats set up these sunset provisions as a means to pressure the White House, and once again they have had the opposite effect. Faced against bipartisan agreement in the Senate on immunity, expect the House to quietly acquiesce.


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