When a key Senate committee voted Thursday to include retroactive immunity for telecom lawbreakers in new legislation, they may not have been prepared for the rising tide of criticism coming their way. Newspaper editorial boards and legal scholars from around the country, normally cautious and reserved, are speaking out in increasingly urgent terms about the threat to the rule of law posed by the immunity provisions. If the bill becomes law it will let phone companies off the hook for their participation in the NSA’s massive and illegal wiretapping program.

Here are few selections from the nation's wires:

NY Times (login required):

[Telecom immunity] is not primarily about protecting patriotic businessmen, as Mr. Bush claims. It’s about ensuring that Mr. Bush and his aides never have to go to court to explain how many laws they’ve broken. It is a collusion between lawmakers and the White House that means that no one is ever held accountable. Democratic lawmakers said they reviewed the telecommunications companies’ cooperation (by reading documents selected by the White House) and concluded that lawsuits were unwarranted. Unlike them, we still have faith in the judicial system, which is where that sort of conclusion is supposed to be reached, not in a Senate back room polluted by the politics of fear.

USA Today:

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has repeatedly bypassed the special court set up to preserve balance. Now, with Congress threatening to restore some level of protection, the administration is insisting on legal immunity for telecommunications companies that might have turned over records improperly. Last week, a key Senate committee agreed.

The request alone is enough to raise suspicion, particularly given the nation's history.

In the 1960s and '70s when law enforcement and spy agencies launched mass snooping against U.S. citizens, some of the data ended up being used for nefarious purposes, such as IRS tax probes, that had nothing to do with protecting the nation.

That is the danger when an administration can tap into phone records without court oversight, and it is what's at issue now.

New Jersey Star Ledger:

The immunity bill would let the telecommunications companies off the hook, but not administration officials. This is misguided. All those who deliberately broke the surveillance laws should be held to account. If not, we are simply inviting more privacy abuses in the future.

Philadelphia Daily News:

If telecom companies fear lawsuits, then here's a tip for them: Don't break the law.

It doesn't matter if President Bush comes to your offices, personally, and demands that you do.

Just because he's the president doesn't mean he can do an end run on the Constitution, and ignorance and fear of political retribution isn't an excuse for violating our rights.

Congress cannot and should not cave in to the heavy pressure telecom companies and the White House are exerting on them.

When the right of individuals to protect their rights through the court system is at stake, there should never be such a thing as a free pass.

Other papers siding with EFF on this issue include The Dallas Morning News, Albany Times-Union, The Bangor Daily News, the Ventura County Star, and the North Carolina News & Observer.

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