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Shehnaz Bhujwala
Shehnaz Bhujwala
Contributor •

Granting Telecom Companies Immunity From Pending Class-Actions Violates Our Civil Rights

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Last week, President Bush strongly urged US lawmakers to pass “anti-terrorism legislation” that would restore legal immunity to telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon, that aided federal efforts to eavesdrop on emailed communications and telephone conversations between the United States and other countries. Today, there is potential for passage of this legislation: House and Senate Democratic leaders are headed into talks that some say could lead to a breakthrough and grant of some form of immunity to these companies. My hope is that House Democratic leaders continue to reject the provision, as our rights to privacy and against unwarranted instrusion by government hang in the balance.

The immunity provision, included in the Senate version of the PAA, would shield from civil liability telecommunications companies that aided the Bush administration in spying on Americans without legally required warrants before the program was exposed by the New York Times in 2005. Retroactive immunity for these companies would also means that the companies named in the 40 pending class-action lawsuits would be able to escape “discovery” — discovery that could very well reveal just whom the government was wiretapping in this pre -9/11 program — and allow violators to avoid detection and continue spying.

Privacy advocates have also raised concerns that the Senate bill contains a provision that would allow the attorney general to erect a new barrier to future privacy cases brought under the nation’s foreign intelligence surveillance law. The Senate version of the bill halts such lawsuits if the Attorney General certifies that the assistance provided by the telecom company is lawful. The only check on that certification would be a court review as to whether the Attorney General abused his discretion in certification, the lowest possible standard of judicial review. Kevin Bankston, Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Washington Post that “this provision is yet another example of the executive branch ‘just trust us’ mentality when it comes to intelligence matters“.

As House Democrats continue to debate whether to accept the Senate version of the bill (granting immunity to telecom companies), our rights to privacy and right against unwarranted instrusion hang in the balance. It should come as no surprise that, since the PAA’s expiration, US justice and intelligence officials have begun to implement tried-and-true fear tactics to further the bill along — officials threaten that the ‘failure’ of the Democratic-led House of Representatives to renew the wiretap law has already led to the loss of vital intelligence information — and, at a White House Press Conference, President Bush made his plea on behalf of the “Protect America Act” (PAA), a recently-expired provision of the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” (FISA), urging lawmakers to act on “a very urgent priority …to pass legislation our intelligence officials need to quickly and effectively monitor terrorist communications.” He added: “At issue is a dispute over whether telecommunications companies should be subjected to class-action lawsuits because they are believed to have helped defend America after the attacks of 9/11.”

These warnings are patently false; despite the expiration of the PAA, the government can continue its surveillance of suspected terrorists under the current law through this summer. As always, the time is now to protect our civil liberties and avoid this obstruction of justice: contact your House representative today and urge them to reject the immunity provision of the PAA.