July 7, 2008 | By Kurt Opsahl

Bush: Telecom Immunity More Important Than Surveillance Powers

Today the Bush Administration released a letter threatening to veto the upcoming FISA legislation if it included the Bingaman Amendment, which puts both telecom immunity and the court cases on hold until after the Inspector General reports about the warrantless wiretapping program. If given the choice between new surveillance powers without immunity for telcos on the one hand, or surveillance under the existing law on the other, the Bush Administration said its choice was clear: keep with the existing law.

Even though the White House "strongly support[s]" the FISA bill, and contends it is necessary to provide "our intelligence professionals the tools they need to keep our Nation safe," and urges the Senate "to act as soon as it returns from its recess," the Bush Administration is willing to veto the legislation and forgo these tools unless the telecom immunity is given effect immediately.

The Administration has said "[t]hat the failure to enact long-term FISA modernization legislation is costly and dangerous is beyond any serious dispute," contending that "[i]t's vital that our intelligence community has the ability to learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they're saying, and what they are planning."

However, according to today's veto threat, none of this is as important as immediate immunity for the telecommunications carriers. Even if the President gets an unprecedented expansion of government surveillance power, and the bill merely delays telecom immunity until Congress has more information, this, Bush contends, is not better than continued surveillance under the current version of FISA.

Assuming that the President would not put the financial interests of large corporations ahead of the safety of the American people, today's veto threat puts the lie to the dire warnings put forth by the Bush Administration. Alternatively, if the government is being honest about the need for immediate legislation, today's veto threat shows a callous indifference to that purported danger, favoring special interests over security.

Senator Kennedy addressed this issue in his floor statement back in December:

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.

The Senate is set to vote on the FISA bill and the Bingaman Amendment this week. Please call your Senators and ask them to call the President's bluff by supporting the Bingaman Amendment and to vote against the unconstitutional FISA bill.

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