December 17, 2007 | By Tim Jones

Senate Showdown over Telecom Surveillance

The Senate showdown over whether to exonerate telecommunications companies for illegally surveilling their customers is underway. Senators Dodd, Feingold and Kennedy have lead the charge. All three made awesome and eloquent arguments for a transparent and accountable government.

Senator Chris Dodd (CT) has been my hometown Senator my whole life; it's great to see him taking leadership on this:

I will ask the Senate candidly, and candidly it already knows the answer: Is this about our security— or is it about (the President's) power?

I ask that question not to change the subject, but because it is the key to understanding why this administration is pushing so hard for telecom immunity—that is, for secrecy. Richard Nixon, the same man who declared that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal,” raised secrecy to an art form—because he understood that the surest way to amass power is to conceal its true extent.

Secrecy can spring from the best motives; but as it grows it begins to exist only for itself, only for its own sake, only to cover its own abuses.

The senators of the Church Committee expressed succinctly the deep flaw in that form of government: "Abuse thrives on secrecy."

Senator Russ Feingold (WI) followed up:

We often hear from those who want to give the government new powers that we just have to bring FISA up to date with new technology. But changes in technology should also cause us to take a close look at the need for greater protections of the privacy of our citizens. If we are going to give the government broad new powers that will lead to the collection of much more information on innocent Americans, we have a duty to protect their privacy as much as we possibly can. And we can do that without sacrificing our ability to collect information that will help protect our national security.

...

This is not about whether the companies had good intentions or acted in good faith. It is about whether they complied with this statutory immunity provision, which has applied to them for 30 years. If the companies followed that law, they should get immunity. If they did not follow that law, they should not get immunity. A court should make that decision, not Congress. It’s that simple.

And finally, Senator Ted Kennedy (MA), who introduced the original FISA intelligence oversight legislation 30 years ago:

Think about what we’ve been hearing from the White House in this debate. The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no new FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he is willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies. The President’s insistence on immunity as a precondition for any FISA reform is yet another example of his disrespect for honest dialogue and for the rule of law.

It’s painfully clear what the President’s request for retroactive immunity is really about. It’s a self-serving attempt to avoid legal and political accountability and keep the American public in the dark about this whole shameful episode. Like the CIA’s destruction of videotapes showing potentially criminal conduct, it’s a desperate attempt to erase the past.

Their efforts and ours were dealt a major setback in this morning's cloture vote. But the fight isn't over yet. You can watch the debate live on C-Span 2, or follow live-blogging at FireDogLake and Unclaimed Territory. You can also email or phone your Senators now and tell them to oppose immunity.


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