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Senate Leader Reid: No “Mad Rush for Immunity”

by addiestan, The Media Consortium: Mon., May 12, 2008
Filed under: Congressional Oversight

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In a meeting this morning with reporters and bloggers, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled that civil libertarians may have less to fear than expected from a surveillance bill currently being negotiated in a conference of House and Senate committees.

Reid made the remarks during a meeting with reporters in the U.S. Capitol building, in answer to my question about current negotiations between House and Senate committees on legislation governing wiretapping in terrorism investigations. The legislation would renew post-9/11 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that expired last year. At issue between the House and Senate bills is the question of retroactive immunity from prosecution for telecom companies who provided customer data to the government, without a court order to do so.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed a version of the legislation, known as the Protect America Act, that provided immunity to the telecoms, effectively shielding from scrutiny government officials who ordered the collection of such data. Critics contend that the immunity provisions in the Senate bill ultimately protects President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney from prosecution for civil rights violations. The House version confers no such immunity. The Senate bill also grants, with little judicial involvement or oversight, for widespread surveillance involving Americans. The conference committee is working to reconcile the two versions.

Even though the Senate version contains the immunity language, Reid’s heart, he says, is in another place. “I personally don’t believe that the phone companies should have immunity,” he told reporters, “and I certainly don’t believe that Bush and Cheney should have immunity.”

When the House passed a version of the bill that failed to include the immunity provisions, President Bush accused House Democrats of leaving the United States vulnerable to attack by terrorists. “Everyone was in a panic,” Reid said. “If we didn’t pass FISA…the world was going to fall apart — and it didn’t.” Because of that, Reid said, “I think the mad rush for immunity is not as intense as it was.”

Critics of the bill, such as leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have suggested that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who leads the negotiations for the Senate bill, was ready to side with the administration on the matter of immunity for telecom companies. Reid appeared to suggest this is not necessarily the case.

Until the legislation is passed, wiretapping on matters concerning foreign intelligence is governed by the FISA law as it was written in 1978.

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