Wiretaps for sale

One of the more darkly amusing developments coming down the pike in 2008 is the impending Republican effort to paint Verizon and AT&T executives as bona fide war heroes. Their brave act? Allowing the Bush National Security Agency (NSA) to listen in to your phone calls. And while the idea of pinning virtual Silver Stars to the telco execs’ bespoke suits sounds laughable, the tragedy is that the GOP may well succeed, and in so doing gut basic privacy rights.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA approached the nation’s telecommunications giants and demanded they allow wiretaps, including access to local switches that carry primarily domestic calls. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), such requests can only be granted via court order or certification from the U.S. attorney general. Administration officials blatantly ignored the law and provided neither.

AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South quickly complied, with only Qwest, the nation’s fourth largest carrier, refusing to break the law. A federal judge subsequently declared the program illegal, and as a result, AT&T now faces a class-action lawsuit for allowing illegal spying on its U.S. customers.

While everyone agrees that FISA requires a technical correction dealing with international calls routed through the U.S., Republicans have hijacked the amendment process by demanding retroactive amnesty to the telco giants for any violations of law — while at the same time bizarrely claiming no laws were violated.

Nevertheless, last fall, the House passed a “clean” FISA bill without retroactive immunity, as did the Senate Judiciary Committee. The full Senate, however, found itself debating a bill that included amnesty. Republicans like Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchDemocrats urge colleagues to oppose prison reform bill The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Senate GOP anger over McCain insult grows MORE (Utah) rose to hail the telcos’ bravery, insisting that “any company that assisted us following the attacks of 9/11 deserves a round of applause and a helping hand, not a slap in the face and a kick to the gut.”

President Bush declared he would veto any bill that did not include telco immunity, leading Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to reason that “the president has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA.

But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity ... So if we take the president at his word, he’s willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.” But a number of Democrats, perpetually fearful of being labeled “weak on national security,” capitulated to the Republicans.

Those efforts were for naught, however, after Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), and allied Sens. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerThe ‘bang for the buck’ theory fueling Trump’s infrastructure plan Kamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response MORE (D-Calif.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownHillicon Valley: Facebook, Google struggle to block terrorist content | Cambridge Analytica declares bankruptcy in US | Company exposed phone location data | Apple starts paying back taxes to Ireland Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump hits federally funded clinics with new abortion restrictions Senate Dems call for probe into why Trump has not issued Russia sanctions MORE (D-Ohio), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTed Cruz and Bill Nelson give NASA a reality check on privatizing International Space Station Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers MORE (D-Fla.), Kennedy and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Facebook, Google struggle to block terrorist content | Cambridge Analytica declares bankruptcy in US | Company exposed phone location data | Apple starts paying back taxes to Ireland Firm exposes cell phone location data on US customers Overnight Finance: Watchdog weighs probe into handling of Cohen bank records | Immigration fight threatens farm bill | House panel rebukes Trump on ZTE | Trump raises doubts about trade deal with China MORE (D-Ore.) courageously took steps to filibuster the legislation. After initially testing Dodd’s resolve, Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (D-Nev.) pulled the legislation. After withdrawing from the presidential race earlier this month, Dodd dispelled insinuations that his filibuster was a campaign stunt by renewing his commitment to stop the telecom amnesty. Now Reid is considering an extension of the current stopgap measure — sans retroactive immunity — for another year.

As Republicans once again attempt to sabotage FISA with amnesty, keep in mind that the “patriotic” telecoms recently cut off FBI wiretaps, including ones related to FISA investigations, because of failures by the federal agency to pay the bills.

Sounds like the telcos were always motivated by the bottom line, not by patriotism. And while the profit motive is important to any corporation, it’s no excuse for amnesty from illegal behavior. Senate Democrats need to reject this craven attempt to redefine heroism and stand up for the rule of law.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).