The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a bill including amnesty for phone companies that assisted the NSA in its illegal warrantless surveillance program late Thursday -- amnesty that is intended to kill pending cases against the telecoms such as EFF's class action lawsuit against AT&T.
If this bill is passed, it would immunize the companies' lawbreaking if it were done based on an authorization by the president, foolishly undermining the very purpose of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn explains in this Salon interview, FISA was passed after Watergate and the spying scandals of the seventies to ensure that the president could never unilaterally decide to spy on Americans' communications. For Congress to now say, 'It's OK if the president said so' would be a striking abdication of its authority. Congress should let the courts address the critical legal questions raised by the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program -- especially the question of whether the president and the phone companies are bound by Congress' laws in this area. Instead, some lawmakers seem intent on shooting their own branch of government in the foot by assisting in the Administration's cover-up and preventing the court's enforcement of Congress' law.
Now that the intelligence committee has approved the bill, it will be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. However, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd has announced that he will put a 'hold' on the bill to prevent it from being considered by the full Senate. We are pleased Senator Dodd has taken a stand for Americans' privacy rights. This amnesty provision is essentially an admission that the telecoms did indeed violate the law at the president's request and did so on a massive scale. If the NSA program were truly narrowly targeted at terrorist suspects, as the president claims, the carriers would not need this unprecedented bailout. Now is the time to tell lawmakers to say no to immunity -- pick up the phone and take action!