As the Senate approaches debate on how much new access the government's spies should have to America's communication infrastructure, senators are still searching for ways to free the nation's telecoms from lawsuits accusing them of illegally helping the government spy on Americans, without giving them complete amnesty.
The Senate Intelligence committee's bill includes full amnesty that would halt the suits, while the Senate Judiciary committee couldn't decide and left it out entirely. Some are suggesting the fines be capped, others that the government pay any damages (indemnification).
On Monday, Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) announced a bill (.pdf) that would substitute the government for the companies in the suit so long as all of the wiretapping help done by the telcos happened after a written request from the government. The government would still get to play its state secrets card under Specter's proposal, which has successfully squashed almost every lawsuit filed directly against the government for its warrantless wiretapping program.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a statement Wednesday, proposing that immunity be handled separately from the larger bill expanding the government's traditional surveillance powers.
"While EFF appreciates the attempt by Senator Specter to craft a compromise to save the litigation, the bill contains serious flaws that undermine the goal of allowing the courts to decide whether the carriers and the president broke the law when they engaged in over five years of warrantless surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "Given the gravity and unprecedented complexities of the issues raised by the carriers' demand for amnesty, Congress should not be rushed into action by an arbitrary deadline and should instead take the time to carefully consider Senator Specter's proposal as well as others."
Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology says the substitution isn't new and is constitutional.
Nojeim said the government made a similar substitution of itself for private corporate defendants when citizens sued some private companies involved in atmospheric nuclear tests.
It's unclear however why the Senate feels it necessary to interfere with the cases that are slowly working through federal courts. The Ninth Circuit has yet to even rule whether to toss all the suits because of the state secrets privilege or affirm a lower court ruling allowing some of the cases to proceed despite the state secrets claim.
But one can assume that the well-paid and well-connected telecom lobbyists are telling them that the cozy relationship between the nation's intelligence services and the telecoms will end unless Congress grants them amnesty for their law breaking.
Comment: We are allowing these jokers in Congress to take away our freedom all because of FEAR. These folks are slaughtering the Constitution all for the fear of 50 or so radical Muslims. Think about it.