As the Senate continues to debate the domestic spy legislation, we speak to Glenn Greenwald, author of A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the State of the Union coverage, looking at surveillance law, which is due to expire midnight Thursday. The Senate is split over a current bill that would grant immunity to major telecom corporations that took part in warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. President Bush urged lawmakers to approve the immunity measure.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: One of the most important tools we can give them is the ability to monitor terrorist communications. To protect America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning. Last year, the Congress passed legislation to help us do that. Unfortunately, Congress set the legislations to expire on February the 1st. That means if you don’t act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened and our citizens will be in greater danger. Congress must ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted. Congress must pass liability protection for companies believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend America. We have had ample time for debate. The time to act is now.
AMY GOODMAN: The fate of the surveillance law is unclear after two key votes in the Senate Monday. Democrats blocked a Republican-led effort to end debate, but lost a measure that would have granted a thirty-day extension to continue discussion. At least a dozen Democrats have joined Republicans in backing the telecom immunity.
Glenn Greenwald has been closely following the debate over government spying, a constitutional law attorney. His latest book is A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency
. He’s a political and legal blogger for Salon.com, joining us now on the line from Brazil, where you’ve been closely following the debate in Congress, Glenn. I’m not sure how. But explain right now what’s at stake. What happened yesterday? What’s happening today in Congress?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, basically, it’s been pretty clear in the Senate that enough Democrats are going to join all the Republicans to support the bill that the White House wants, which is a bill that will give full immunity to all the telecoms who broke the law by allowing warrantless spying on Americans and will also give the President vast new powers to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants. That’s the bill that seems likely to pass the Senate with votes from all the Republicans and ten to twelve Democrats.
What the Republicans tried to do yesterday is to force a vote on that bill without allowing any of the amendments that certain Democrats are trying to offer to at least improve the bill a little bit, and Democrats stuck together and prevented a vote on that bill so that these amendments can be considered. The reality is that most of these amendments that are significant are likely to fail. And so, the Senate will pass a bill that is the exact bill that the White House wants.
The House, six weeks ago, passed a much better bill that does not provide immunity to telecoms and that does not provide warrantless eavesdropping. And so, the question then will become, will the House stand firm behind its bill, or will it capitulate and pass a bill similar to the one that the Senate passed, so that they can send it to the White House for signing?
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, explain the issue of telecom immunity.
GLENN GREENWALD: We have had laws on the books in our country, four or five different federal laws, that make it a felony for telecommunications companies to allow spying on their customers by the government without warrants or to turn over to the government records reflecting the communications activities of their customers without the warrants required by law. Those telecoms — not all of them, but many of them, including the largest, which is AT&T and Verizon — were asked by the Bush administration to violate those laws and to allow spying and to turn over records without warrants, and many of them did so. And they didn’t just do so for a little bit of time in 2001; they did so for years and years and years. And as a result, there are now lawsuits that have been brought by customers of those telecommunications companies and by privacy groups, seeking damages for their having broken the law for years and years and years.
And the Bush administration has been demanding that these telecoms be provided with an extraordinary gift, something that ordinary Americans would never get, which is retroactive immunity, that Congress would pass a law that has no purpose but to say that telecoms cannot be held accountable in a court of law for having broken the law over the course of the past six years.
The real purpose of that is not to protect the telecoms from these lawsuits. They make billions of dollars a year, and they’re not really worried about the monetary damage. The real purpose of immunity is that these lawsuits are the last remaining hope for actually finding out, exposing and revealing how our government has been spying on us illegally for the past seven years, and that’s why they’re so eager to get rid of these lawsuits, to make sure that those activities remain concealed.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think ultimately is going to happen right now, right now in Congress and the Senate?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, clearly, there are enough Democrats, led by Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, who’s a Democrat, who support telecom immunity and are not willing to fight the President on it. So it’s clearly going to pass the Senate. The House, as I indicated, passed a bill that does not have it. And then the only question is, will the so-called Blue Dogs in the House abandon their own bill and join the Republicans in order to give telecom immunity? Based on how the Democrats have behaved over the past year, especially on national security, one ought to bet on their capitulating to the President and giving him what he demands. But that remains to be seen, and if enough Americans continue to express outrage over this, then perhaps the House Democrats will stand firm.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, are the telecom companies still spying on Americans?
GLENN GREENWALD: Clearly, they’re still spying on Americans. I mean, we don’t know the extent to which they are. The administration claims that many of these programs have stopped this year, that they have now begun spying only within the framework of the FISA court. And, of course, the whole purpose of what the Protect America Act did that was passed last August was to legalize warrantless spying. So the telecoms certainly are still spying — allowing spying on Americans with no warrant. It’s just since the Democrats in August passed the Protect America Act, the difference is now it’s legal for them to do so. Before August, it was illegal.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney book, his book called A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. He’s a political and legal blogger at Salon.com.