Thursday, January 24, 2008

Telecom Immunity: Covering Up Illegality by Secrecy and Fear

by Coleen Rowley

Dick Cheney was at his best shilling for immunity for telecom companies today before the Heritage Foundation. His speech came one day before the Republican rubber stamp machine in the Senate attempts another push to give blanket immunity to the telecommunication companies suspected of engaging in illegal eavesdropping and surveillance of Americans. Although wiretapping is usually justified as a necessary tool in the “War on Terror”, there is good reason to doubt the official story and question the legality of the Bush administration’s practices.

Already a series of Bush administration lies on the subject has collapsed. First, there was President Bush’s repeated public statements back in 2004 that wiretapping occurs in the United States only pursuant to court order. NY Times writers who had found out otherwise were threatened and cajoled into silence for an entire year. When the government’s massive warrantless surveillance program was finally exposed in 2005, we were told the “terrorist surveillance program” had been instituted in response to the 9-11 attacks and the threat of terrorism. But a number of credible sources have since reported that the NSA’s domestic phone record program began 7 months before 9/11.

The Administration argues that the telecom companies deserve immunity because their managers were loyal Americans acting in the public interest and they could not have been expected to determine the legality of their actions. Hefty financial incentives in the form of government contracts may have been dangled in front of the telecoms to get them to overlook the legalities. This argument fails, nonetheless, because of evidence in the form of heavily redacted court documents describing Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio’s refusal in February 2001 to turn over call records to the NSA without a proper legal order. (Nacchio contends that he was targeted by the Administration for a criminal investigation precisely because he refused to play ball without a court order.)

Obtaining the truth about the NSA’s surveillance program is of the utmost importance. Congress is in the process of fashioning a legislative fix that is supposed to accomplish the dual goals of detecting terrorists without unduly invading privacy interests and without clogging up the NSA’s databases with non-relevant data about innocent Americans.

Without the facts about the scope of monitoring, what actual prior limitations or technological challenges existed and exactly what kinds of surveillance services or customer records the telecoms were providing the NSA, it’s hard to know what, if any, legislative remedy is needed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It is quite obvious, however, from various congresspersons’ public statements after the midnight vote in August 2007 (before their summer recess) that few understood what they had voted for. So there’s strong reason to believe that Congress itself has still not been told the truth. What Congress and the public have been told is that dramatic changes to FISA are necessary to expand warrantless monitoring of all international calls including of Americans’ calls abroad.

Immunizing the telecoms’ prior illegal actions in a blanket way not only sets a terrible precedent that the Constitution and the courts don’t matter on the mere say-so of the executive branch, but the continued murkiness potentially covers up all kinds of other problems. Remember the FBI’s rush to collect banking, credit, telephone, travel and all manner of other information about you with their hundreds of thousands of “national security letters” after 9-11? More is not necessarily better if mistakes and non-relevance are pervasive in such collection, as the Department of Justice’s own Inspector General later found.........

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