President George W. Bush, speaking at the White House in a press conference Thursday morning, called on the House of Representatives to pass surveillance legislation that would provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that provided the government access to their networks without warrants.
On the surface, the lawsuits — most notably against AT&T and Verizon — appear to be aimed at revealing details of the U.S. government’s warrantless wiretapping programs in an effort to get at data that could prove the government overstepped its bounds concerning American citizens in the war on terror.
“At issue is a dispute over whether telecommunications companies should be subjected to class-action lawsuits because they are believed to have helped defend America after the attacks of 9/11,” the president said. “Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair. If any of these companies helped us, they did so after being told by our government that their assistance was legal and vital to our national security.”
The Senate passed its version of the surveillance/immunity bill earlier this month, but the House appears more concerned that granting blanket immunity for government assistance, without addressing specific laws that may have been broken, may neglect civil liberties and the privacy of U.S. citizens.
‘Road Map’ for Terrorists
If the legislation isn’t passed, the lawsuits will continue forward.
“Allowing the lawsuits to proceed could aid our enemies, because the litigation process could lead to the disclosure of information about how we conduct surveillance, and it would give al-Qaeda and others a road map as to how to avoid the surveillance,” President Bush warned. “Allowing these lawsuits to proceed could make it harder to track the terrorists, because private companies besieged by and fearful of lawsuits would be less willing to help us quickly get the information we need. Without the cooperation of the private sector, we cannot protect our country from terrorist attack.”
Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy was quick to chastise President Bush following the White House press briefing.
“At a time when Congress is willing to extend the Protect America Act, the President continues to use the specter of terrorism to push an agenda that has nothing to do with making America safer. If the telecommunications companies didn’t break the law, they do not need immunity. If they broke the law, the American people deserve to know the size and scope of their lawbreaking,” Kennedy commented. “Adhering to the rule of law would not ‘aid our enemies’ — it would uphold the very principles we are fighting for. The President’s position has nothing to do with protecting Americans and everything to do with sweeping under the rug illegal activity by his administration and his corporate partners.”
In addition to noting the need to protect America from terrorists, President Bush also characterized the lawsuits as coming from class-action attorneys who are looking for a “financial gravy train.”
Caught in the Crossfire
Gravy train or not, the telecommunications companies that complied with warrantless government wiretapping requests were likely caught in the crossfire of the war on terrorism. It’s hard to imagine that telecom executives wanted government officials snooping around their networks and customer communications, but then again, as President Bush said today, the telecoms were “told by our government that their assistance was legal and vital to our national security.”
Still, at least one large telecommunications company raised considerable objection: Qwest rejected the federal government’s wiretapping requests on the grounds that it wasn’t clearly legal.
Checks and Balances
“We have to determine whether or not we want the help of the nation’s telecom companies [in the war on terror],” Jeff Kagan, a telecom industry analyst, told the E-Commerce Times. “Terrorists have to communicate and they aren’t going to be using carrier pigeons — they’re going to use public networks. And the telecommunications companies can help, but they have to protect themselves — the company and the shareholders.”
Wireless telecommunications companies, Kagan noted, haven’t been operating wirelessly for that long — since around 1980 — and they aren’t affected by the same laws that assist the government in conducting traditional wired communications. “It wasn’t an issue until 2001,” he noted. “I understand both sides, and the bottom line is, we have determine what’s better for society,” he added.