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Lawmakers Strip Immunity for Telecom Companies from Surveillance Bill

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Despite threats of a White House veto, both the full House and the Senate Judiciary Committee passed bills Thursday rejecting blanket immunity for telecommunication companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping. We speak to Michelle Richardson of the American Civil Liberties Union. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Washington, D.C. Despite threats of a White House veto, both the full House and the Senate Judiciary Committee passed bills Thursday rejecting blanket immunity for telecommunication companies that cooperate with the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping. The White House said the House bill, quote, “dangerously weakens” national security and, quote, “fails to protect companies facing massive lawsuits.”

Both bills amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, and pave the way for courts to decide whether telecom companies might have broken the law when they participated in the warrantless wiretapping program.

The Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the bill follows the Senate Intelligence Committee vote in October. But the Senate Intelligence Committee had approved a version that included telecom amnesty. The Senate leadership is expected to decide which of the two proposals will be considered by the full Senate.

Michelle Richardson is a legislative consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union, where she lobbies on national security issues. Before joining the ACLU, she was counsel to John Conyers and the House Judiciary Committee, where she specialized in national security issues, constitutional law and government oversight. Michelle Richardson joins me here in Washington, D.C.

Michelle, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of yesterday’s vote. Then we’ll go on to talk about what the Senate might do.

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Yesterday’s vote was huge. We didn’t know where immunity was going in the Senate and whether any of the Democrats were going to stand up to the president’s proposal to give them blanket amnesty. Mr. Leahy, during the markup, went ahead and moved the bill without immunity, positioning Mr. Reid so that he could bring a bill to the floor without any immunity whatsoever right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what the House bill and the Senate Judiciary bill do.

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: They both provide for, basically, warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international communications. The president has been pushing for those bills to also include retroactive immunity for all the communication providers who warrantlessly wiretapped Americans since September 11th. Both bills refuse to do that, though, and now the president is threatening to veto those bills for the lack of immunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the forces involved here. What is the power of Verizon, AT&T? How are they lobbying? I mean, you’re lobbying on the Hill. What do you see them doing?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Well, they are a tremendous lobby here in D.C. They have their own lobbyists. They hire outside lobbyists. And really, those of us who work on civil liberties just can’t compete with the money and the resources that this industry has. They have been pushing nonstop since the story broke in December of 2005 to kill these cases and be absolved of any liability whatsoever for spying on their own customers.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the lawsuits that have been filed and what they mean? What could happen to them under the laws being proposed?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Well, right now, the bill that came out of the Senate Intelligence Committee would kill all pending cases, not just the cases seeking monetary damages, but even the cases just seeking to find out what happened to our phone calls and our phone records, and the cases that are just seeking injunctive relief to get a ruling that warrantless wiretapping is illegal and that it shouldn’t happen in the future. It would allow the attorney general to single-handedly dismiss all 40-some-odd cases without any showing that the surveillance was actually lawful.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, AT&T has one of the most powerful war chests in Washington. Through its political action committee, it’s already contributed more than $1 million to candidates in the current election cycle. Do you see a direct correlation with where these candidates stand?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: I don’t know if I would say they are necessarily bought off, but the money is a huge influence. And the telecom industry is so intertwined with D.C.—and it always has been—that it’s really an uphill battle that we really need people to be fighting with us to make sure that they aren’t just let off the hook without a full accounting of what they actually did with our information and guarantees that it won’t happen again in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, can you explain their lawsuit?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Yes. They are suing AT&T out in California. They have a very interesting case, because they actually have direct evidence of the program, which many of the cases don’t have: They have a whistleblower who worked for AT&T and actually saw the room where the NSA was literally copying everything that came into and out of those servers, including all of the Internet traffic of all of their customers.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Klein, you’re talking about.


AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, what is the Senate going to do? The House has passed their bill. The Senate Judiciary and—the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees have each passed bills. So what happens now?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Well, right now, it’s up to Senator Reid to decide which bill goes to the floor. We really hope it is the Judiciary bill. It’s the one that has been through both committees. It has been revised. And it, you know, has a vote that says that immunity should be battled on the floor. Mr. Reid, hopefully, will send that Judiciary bill to the floor without immunity, and then it will be on the Republicans and other friends of the telecom industry to put immunity back in the bill, as opposed to sending a bill to the floor with immunity whereby the burden would be on us to take it out.

AMY GOODMAN: The telecom companies are arguing that they can’t defend themselves in court because of national security, and that’s why they need immunity. Your response, Michelle Richardson?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Well, you know, they can always say they didn’t do anything. If they didn’t wiretap Americans without warrants, they could simply say that. What they want to do is say, “Well, the president told us it was OK. We had no ability to defy him.” And that’s not a legal justification. We have to realize these aren’t mom-and-pop organizations that don’t know the law. These are very sophisticated, massive companies with lots of lawyers who knew what they were doing was illegal at the time they were doing it. They just really didn’t expect to be caught.

AMY GOODMAN: Verizon and AT&T have not admitted they cooperated with the program. They’re just not commenting. Qwest says they didn’t, and the chief executive, Joe Nacchio, has charged the administration punished him by denying him lucrative government contracts.

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Correct, and that’s a good example that, you know, these companies could have stood up and said, “No. Please go to court. Get the warrant. We’ll cooperate, but we’re not going to spy on our customers without a lawful reason to do so.” We really hope that companies follow Qwest’s leadership in the future and demand that the government actually follow the law.

AMY GOODMAN: When is the vote going to take place in the Senate?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Most likely in December.

AMY GOODMAN: And what power do people have to weigh in?

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Tremendous power. You know, a lot of groups organized this week to call into Senators Feinstein and Whitehouse and some of the other opinion makers on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and it really made a difference. We went into this markup thinking that we would be facing a horrible telecom immunity provision, but we came out of that markup with no immunity. And that really speaks to the power of the people. We need to keep pushing. We need to let Senator Reid know that we want a bill to go to the floor that doesn’t have immunity in it and that it has to be on the Republicans and other friends of the telecom industry to get their 60 votes to put it back into the bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Richardson, I want to thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Legislative consultant for the ACLU. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by investigative reporter Craig Unger. He has a new book out; it’s called The Fall of the House of Bush. Stay with us.

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