Monday, December 17, 2007

Telecom Amnesty

I won't get into all of the how a bill becomes a law stuff. Who really needs a definition of cloture?

On the road to being signed by George W. is a law revamping the FISA courts, but what's really important is what's tucked away in this law, a Christmas present to Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, and the other telephone companies that complied with the White House's illegal wiretapping program: retroactive amnesty.

Despite the obvious fourth amendment violations there are also federal laws targeting private companies who spy on American citizens. In the bill presented to the Senate there was a provision granting these telecom companies amnesty from any past wrongs related to spying on Americans. It's a good old fashion get out of jail free card courtesy of our government.

There are several arguments that have been trotted out in defense of telecom amnesty:

The telecom companies were just doing their patriotic duty by helping out the government.

If by "patriotic duty" you mean the White House threatened to withdraw profitable government contracts if the telecom companies didn't comply, then you're onto something. Apparently Qwest, the only company to refuse the White House's request (or should I say, re"qwest"?...oh, I shouldn't, sorry) claim that profitable contracts were withdrawn when they did not cooperate. It's not surprising that these corporations were more concerned with the bottom line than "patriotic duty." Besides, what's so patriotic about helping the government break the fourth amendment? Isn't that the exact opposite of patriotism?

Those poor telecom companies didn't know what they were doing. They were confused when the big bad White House pressured them into breaking the law.

Multi-million dollar companies have multi-million dollar lawyers. I know there are a lot of dumb people graduating from law school but they don't work for Fortune 500 companies. Besides, Qwest's lawyers obviously knew it was wrong, and if I remember correctly ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Because the White House coerced these companies into breaking the law, we should go after the White House instead of the telephone companies.

There was a reason why the federal laws specifically mention private companies. It doesn't matter who's spying, or whether it is the fourth amendment or federal statute as presiding law, the simple fact is they broke the law. Besides, thanks to executive privilege run amok, suing the phone companies might be the only means of discovering the breadth of government spying. There is a reason why Bush is threatening to veto any FISA bill, regardless of whether or not it gives him everything else he wants, if the bill does not contain telecom amnesty. If the telephone companies are sued then they will be forced to hand over loads of information to the courts, which in turn will likely implicate the White House in a violation of the fourth amendment. I don't think the president can pardon himself if he's the one in jail. However, if the White House itself is prosecuted, then they can merely claim executive privilege - as the argument goes, handing over documents could hurt national security so the White House, unlike the rest of the country, does not have to do so. This leaves any prosecution with zero evidence to support a fourth amendment violation.

But there is an "intelligence gap" between us and the terrorists, and if we don't pass a bill that revises FISA quickly, then Al Qaeda will come over here blow up our babies, use their blood for 'dem 'der Rahamadajan ritual, and convert them to Islam...but not in that order.

Which is why there is an identical bill that can be brought to the floor of the Senate that both revises FISA and removes telecom amnesty. It is called the RESTORE act. Why that is not on the floor of the Senate and telecom amnesty is, I have no idea. Assuming you buy into the argument that FISA must be revised or we could face another attack, then why would Bush risk another attack by vetoing a FISA bill just because it doesn't immunize the telephone companies from the law. Hmmm...something to think about.

Just when it looked like telecom amnesty was going to the floor of the Senate to be voted on, where it would inevitably pass, presidential candidate Chris Dodd swooped in from Iowa to lead a filibuster. Ignoring his own party's leaders he argued passionately against telecom amnesty. Here is an excerpt:

And you thought that Chris Dodd was just some guy who was always on the very far side of the debate stage who looked peculiarly like your grandfather. Here's a link to another segment of his speech. Despite Dodd's impassioned speech a vast majority of Senators, Republican and Democrat alike, voted to bring this version of the FISA bill, telecom amnesty and all, to the floor of the Senate. The handful who voted against it: Boxer (California), Brown (Ohio), Cantwell (Washington), Cardin (Maryland), Dodd (Connecticut), Feingold (Wisconsin), Harkin (Iowa), Kerry (Massachusetts), Menendez (New Jersey), Wyden (Oregon). (On a side note, being from Ohio I feel like my vote for Sherrod Brown was the one vote from which I received action rather than talk).

Despite these votes, thanks to Dodd's filibuster, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D), reluctantly took the bill off the Senate floor. Reid ignored a hold that Dodd placed on the bill to prevent it from reaching the Senate floor, forcing Dodd to filibuster. Instead of respecting Dodd's hold, as he has with the holds of many Republicans, Reid decided to bring forth the FISA bill with telecom amnesty, rather than the RESTORE bill without telecom amnesty.

It looks like the bill will come around again in the New Year, so if you want to show your support by typing your name and e-mail onto a petition expressing disappointment with Harry Reid, you can do so here.

In closing, here is a thank you from Dodd to all of his supporters:

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