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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 Hatch (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 Boxer (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Kennedy and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) courageously took steps to filibuster the legislation. After initially testing Dodd’s resolve, Majority Leader Harry Reid (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).

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