Washington, D.C. - Today, a formidable trio of House Committee Chairmen sent a stern letter to their colleagues urging them to oppose immunity for phone companies that assisted in the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program.
The White House is demanding that immunity for the telecoms be included in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) legislation pending in Congress. But in today's letter -- written by John Dingell, Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce; Ed Markey, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet; and Bart Stupak, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations -- the congressmen argue that the president is creating a "false choice" for lawmakers.
"By tying the question of lawsuit immunity to questions of national security and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reform legislation, the President has created a false choice for Congress," the letter states. "The issue of immunity for phone companies that chose to cooperate with the President's warrantless wiretapping program deserves a separate and more deliberate examination by Congress. No special urgency attaches to the question of immunity other than the present Administration's general eagerness to limit tort liability and its desire to avoid scrutiny of its own actions, by either the courts or the Congress."
Earlier this week, more than two dozen House members sent a letter to the White House announcing their opposition to telecom immunity. Along with the Chairmen's letter, this may represent a significant shift in the political debate over telecom immunity. The Senate could complete work on the FISA Amendments Act, which includes immunity, as early as next week. In November, the House passed its own surveillance bill, the RESTORE Act, which does not grant immunity. The House will soon be negotiating with the Senate over how to reconcile those bills.
"Senators about to vote on immunity should heed the Chairmen's warning: tying the question of telecom immunity to that of FISA reform is unnecessary and dangerous," said Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "But if the Senate complies with the Administration's pleas to cover up its illegal spying and bail out the phone companies, then it's time for the House to step up and block immunity for lawbreaking telecom giants."
EFF represents the plaintiffs in Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit brought by AT&T customers accusing the telecommunications company of violating their rights by illegally assisting the National Security Agency in widespread domestic surveillance. The Hepting case is just one of many suits aimed at holding telecoms responsible for knowingly violating federal privacy laws with warrantless wiretapping and the illegal transfer of vast amounts of personal data to the government.
For the full letter from Congressmen Dingell, Markey, and Stupak: http://www.eff.org/files/nsa/dingell.pdf
For the letter from the House members to the White House: http://lee.house.gov/index.cfm?ContentID=1206&ParentID=0&SectionID=4&SectionTree=4&lnk=b&ItemID=1201
For more on the telecoms' role in warrantless spying:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation