Dropping the Call on Telecom Immunity

As the new year begins, it is customary to reflect on the top stories of the past year. One story that has escaped the notice of most Americans is the unnerving extension and abuse of executive power by the administration of President George W. Bush. In particular, the case of telecom immunity perfectly epitomizes the actions and attitudes of President Bush’s truly harmful priorities as he finishes his last term in office.
After Sept. 11, the Bush administration extended the capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA) to perform surveillance on American citizens without obtaining warrants. A recent New York Times article even revealed that within two weeks of taking office, the Bush administration had planned an extensive effort to spy on Americans.
Congress submissively approved President Bush’s decree to expand the NSA’s powers in August. However, on Feb. 1, the legislation will expire. President Bush wants to see Congress pass permanent legislation to grant the NSA the same expanded powers while granting telecom companies immunity from lawsuits for illegally assisting the Bush administration with government surveillance.
The Bush administration has defended warrantless wiretapping as necessary for the security of Americans in light of the attacks of Sept. 11 and the War on Terror. However, it is dangerous and irresponsible to assume that our leaders or our government need more power to protect us in a way that does not allow for proper oversight.
The NSA relied heavily on private sector telecommunication companies to acquire telephone records and E-mail traffic summaries without the customary necessity of obtaining a warrant. As a result, class action lawsuits were filed against telephone companies for breaking America’s surveillance and privacy laws.
If Congress votes to grant retroactive immunity to telecom corporations, American citizens will be prevented from securing a judicial ruling that the government and the telecom industry broke the law by spying without a warrant. Thus, there would be no consequences for telecom companies even if they are found guilty of breaking the law by the judicial system. The 40 lawsuits that are currently pending against various phone companies would be dismissed.
Of course, the Bush administration has lobbied hard to ensure that telecom immunity is passed by Congress in order to deny the illegality of their cooperation with the telecommunications industry in performing warrantless surveillance. If telecom immunity receives congressional approval, the Bush administration will continue to enjoy facing no accountability for its actions. Furthermore, the dismissal of these lawsuits can only be seen by this administration as necessary to strengthen executive power that it believes should not have to answer to the rule of law.
Why is it so important that immunity is not retroactively granted to the telecom industry? It comes down to preserving the law and ensuring the privacy of every American. In addition, huge telecom corporations should not be granted special privileges.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘the telecoms knowingly and intentionally violated at least four statutes that require telecoms to protect customer privacy.’ The first stature is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which makes it illegal to intentionally engage in electronic surveillance. The second is the Wiretap Act, which ‘prohibits any person from illegally intercepting, disclosing, using and/or divulging phone calls or electronic communications.’ Thirdly, the Communications Act was broken because it ‘prohibits communications carriers from unauthorized divulgence and/or publication of customer communications.’ Finally, the Stored Communications Act was also broken because it states that it is against the law to disclose customer communications to the government without legal process.
It goes without saying that the first and fourth amendments to the Constitution have also been violated. However, some members of Congress and the mainstream media would have the public believe that telecom immunity is necessary because the Bush administration says so and that there is no reason to question whether President Bush should be granted his request to bestow immunity on corporations that broke that law to supposedly ensure the safety of Americans. One such example is Senator Jay Rockefeller, who has tried to lead Congress to believe that the telecom companies have done nothing wrong while receiving huge payments from the telecom industry.
While it is conceivable that the government would need to prevent lawsuits for the purposes of national security, the Bush administration can only be relied upon to abuse any executive privilege that could potentially have merit in some circumstances. This administration cannot be trusted when it makes claims that the strengthening of executive power and national surveillance are necessary for America’s security. What is more, according to Privacy International, the United States is now classified as an ‘endemic surveillance society,’ thanks to the policies of President Bush.
Therefore, it is crucial that Congress sends a message to this administration in January by standing up for what is right and preventing telecom immunity. Granting immunity to telecom companies would essentially be granting immunity to this administration, and Congress would continue the pattern of deferring to President Bush’s judgment, which after almost eight years has proven to be seriously flawed.
Since President Bush has decided to make the permanent expansion of surveillance powers and retroactive immunity a priority of his remaining time in office, it is evident that the right to privacy and the rule of law will continue to be threatened while he is in power, especially if Congress caves in to his every command.
Jeannette Brown is a third-year English major. She can be reached at jeannetb@uci.edu.