Pivotal Domestic Spying Debate Begins Today, Congress Decides on Warrantless Wiretapping and Telecom Immunity

December 17, 2007 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – As the debate over domestic spying begins in the US Senate today, the American Civil Liberties Union urges senators to reject the Bush administration’s spying free-for-all and not provide immunity to telecommunications companies that broke the law over the past six years.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office said, “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has decided to move the bad Senate Intelligence Committee bill. This is not good news for those of us who respect freedom, the rule of law and the Constitution. Instead of capitulating to the White House, senators should be listening to their constituents — not telecom lobbyists or White House spinmeisters.

“After years of illegally wiretapping Americans on American soil, the White House now wants to let the telecommunications companies off the hook for their law breaking. Americans do not want the government to have the power to spy without warrants. Now, a Democratically-led Congress may be about to give this administration that power and is on the verge of giving the telecommunications companies a multimillion dollar Christmas present.

“We commend Senator Dodd for his statement on the Senate floor this morning and we urge other senators to stand with him to vote no against cloture and to strip telecom immunity from the bill. His courage in standing up to the administration’s power grab should be an example for Democratic leadership. If all of the Senate Democrats had the conviction of Senator Dodd, we wouldn’t need the threat of a filibuster.”

Fredrickson also noted the following things we’ve learned and/or confirmed from this Sunday December 16, 2007 New York Times story about the telecommunications companies:

“1. It’s Not About Terrorism. The massive wiretapping and data collection program isn’t about defending us against future terrorist attacks — the program started long before 9/11, in the 90’s, and was ramped up by this administration immediately after taking office. It’s also routinely being used for run-of-the-mill drug cases to collect phone records that having nothing to do with terrorism.

“2. It’s Not About Foreigners or Even International Calls. The NYT reveals that part of what made Qwest balk at the request in early 2001 was that the program was designed to pick up significant amounts of purely domestic communications by granting the NSA access “to their most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls” and that only “limited international traffic also passes through the switches.” In fact, one anonymous engineer confirmed that creating the program to copy all the calls coming across one company’s wires, “There was no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications.”

“3. More than Just One Company Thought Some Aspect of the Program Was Illegal. The NYT also for the first time confirms that Qwest was not the only company to have reservations about the program. We know Qwest was approached long before 9/11 and refused to participate at all. Now we know that at least one more company had concerns about the legality about the program and “balked” in 2004. This undercuts the government’s claims that everyone agreed the programs were legal.

“4. This is Not a Surgical Program Narrowly Targeted at Terrorists. Despite repeated assurances that the government does not conduct – and does not want to conduct – vast dragnet operations, “the N.S.A. met with AT&T officials to discuss replicating a network center in Bedminster, N.J., to give the agency access to all the global phone and e-mail traffic that ran through it.”

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