U.S. Senate to telecoms -- I'll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.

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 world.

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.

The 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 it."

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."

Interestingly, 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."

Senate 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."

The 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 inception.
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.

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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