Telecoms and many in the federal Executive branch seemed quite
content with the increased usage of warrantless phone surveillance,
which some people feel violates Americans' legal rights. The
telecoms received large paychecks for every wiretap put in place;
Comcast's rate was a modest
$1,000 per tap. Meanwhile, politicians are happy because
they were able to extend their surveillance programs as planned.
The program may toss due process out the window, but, in their
opinion, that is a necessary loss to deal with today's troubled
Then all of a sudden the good times ended, when a few
members of Congress demanded telecom's spy records for hearings on
the legality of the program. The phone companies refused, and
all of a sudden, their
dirty laundry was aired to the public. The public exposure
opened the NSA and telecoms up to legal action from civil liberties
groups and citizens. Sure enough, the Electronic Frontier
Foundation filed for a class
action lawsuit for the warrantless eavesdropping practices.
Such a lawsuit could cost telecoms and the U.S. government millions
of dollars -- enough to rain on any wiretapper's parade.
Facing mounting political pressure from the Executive Branch,
a largely Republican backed coalition in the U.S.
Senate formulated and passed a "spy bill" which would
grant the telecoms who cooperated with warrantless snooping programs
retroactive immunity from lawsuits. The bill would trash
the EFF's suit and 40 other pending lawsuits against Verizon
Communications, Sprint Nextel, and AT&T, which accuse the
telecoms of violating citizen rights. The bill replaces a
temporary spy law, which was going to expire this week.
bill's big struggle will be passing in a Democratic-led House, which
has shown strong opposition to the bill. The bill's backers in
the Senate claim the bill will also add legal protection of privacy
rights for law-abiding Americans swept up in terror hunts.
However such measures would likely be carried out confidentially,
raising questions of how to measure their success or maintain
accountability. Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican and a
chief sponsor of the bill, feels that those issues are a moot point
and the important thing is that the bill passed. He expressed
frustration with the Democratic resistance, stating, "I don't
know what they (House Democrats) are going to do -- I hope they pass
If the bill fails in the House, the temporary law
will expire on Sunday. The House would likely be willing to
pass another extension of the current law extending the surveillance
program, but still leaving the issue open to debate and telecoms open
to legal trouble. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of
Kentucky also was vexed with the House Democrats' lack of compliance,
stating, "We do not need yet another extension, yet another
delay. We need to focus on getting our work done."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller of West
Virginia, a Senate Democrat broke ranks with many of his party
members and endorsed the bill. He however did also voice
seemingly contradictory criticism that President Bush enacted the
original bill without Senate approval. Rockefeller tried with
little success to sway other members of his party, stating, "Anger
over the president's program should not prevent us from addressing
the real problems that the president has created."
Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, voted no and blasted
the bill, stating, "I believe that the White House and any
companies who broke the law must be held accountable."
1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) mandates that the
government require approval of a secret FISA court to conduct
surveillance programs on suspected foreign agents operating inside
the U.S. Critics argue that Bush's wireless wiretapping program
is blatantly illegal and violates FISA. Bush argues that he has
the power to override the FISA. However, Bush did put the
program under FISA supervision in 2007, about 6 years after its
The debate about whether telecoms should be
granted immunity despite helping to trash due process remains a
contentious one. Some argue that due process is impractical in
some situations and flexibility and legal protection needs to be
given to entities cooperating with government investigations.
Meanwhile privacy and civil liberties
advocacy groups argue that
privacy and free
speech are facing unprecedented assaults both online and off.
The conflict leaves U.S. citizens wondering exactly how they feel
about the stark realization that their actions
and conversations may be monitored.