May 4, 2007

Bush Trying To Immunize Telecos Over CATCH-ALL

The White House is still playing CYA on the CATCH-ALL program.

The Bush administration is urging Congress to pass a law that would halt dozens of lawsuits charging phone companies with invading ordinary citizens' privacy through a post-Sept. 11 warrantless surveillance program.

The measure is part of a legislative package drafted by the Justice Department to relax provisions in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that restrict the administration's ability to intercept electronic communications in the United States. If passed, the proposed changes would forestall efforts to compel disclosure of the program's details through Congress or the court system.

The proposal states that "no action shall lie . . . in any court, and no penalty . . . shall be imposed . . . against any person" for giving the government information, including customer records, in connection with alleged intelligence activity the attorney general certifies "is, was, would be or would have been" intended to protect the United States from terrorist attack. The measure, which has not yet been filed, is contained in a proposed amendment to the fiscal 2008 intelligence authorization bill. ...

Though laws exist that could immunize companies against civil and criminal liability in surveillance cases, invoking them would acknowledge that the firm cooperated with the government. Such knowledge could allow a terrorist to adjust tactics, the government argues.

Government lawyers crafted the immunity bill using terms deliberately vague in referring to activity that "would be or would have been" aimed at protecting the country from attack to avoid indicating whether a company cooperated.

But civil libertarians charged that blanket immunity would amount to a legislative pardon to telecommunications companies and others that have aided the government's warrantless surveillance, without explaining the pardon's basis. ...

The measure would gut Congress's efforts to conduct inquiries into the administration's surveillance program because a subpoenaed company or government official could invoke immunity, said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the government to force a halt to its wiretapping program.

"The end result is not only will the Bush administration continue to stonewall Congress in its request for information on warrantless wiretapping, but no one who participated will have any threat above their head," Sparapani said. "You could just face a congressional subpoena and say, 'I'm sorry, I'm immunized.' "

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