Somebody Is Lying About FISA

By Melanie Scarborough

The San Francisco Examiner

Monday 03 December 2007

Washington - As a technician for AT&T, Mark Klein says he helped connect a device three years ago that copied onto a government supercomputer every phone call, e-mail and Internet search made through the company's network.

"AT&T provided the National Security Agency with everything that ordinary Americans communicated over the Internet," Klein said recently on Capitol Hill. "This program included not only AT&T customers, but everyone who used the Internet because AT&T carries messages for other carriers also."

President Bush denies that. "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," he said. "Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates. The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities."

Only one of those men can be telling the truth. That the White House is frantically lobbying weak links in the Senate to pass a revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) granting immunity for AT&T and other telecom companies suggests who fears exposure.

The House resisted pressure from the administration and passed a version of FISA that does not include immunity. The Senate Judiciary Committee recommended that the Senate do the same. Why wouldn't it?

Consider the advantages of such litigation moving forward. In lawsuits alleging that telecom companies violated the law by conducting domestic spying without permission of the FISA court, the evidence presented could reveal the scope of the government's surveillance program, which citizens are entitled to know.

A lawsuit also would force courts to settle the question of whether the spying was legal - which even Bush seems to question. If he is certain that it was legal to enlist telecom companies to conduct domestic surveillance, then why is he so adamant about demanding immunity for them? Bush has said he will veto a FISA bill that doesn't include such a provision, which is difficult to construe as anything other than a way to bury the truth.

Moreover, protecting telecom companies from lawsuits pre-emptively tramples the rights of injured customers by depriving them of recourse. The telecom companies, with their staffs of high-powered lawyers, had to know they were taking a legal risk. Obviously, the benefits were worth it to them.

The contract for spying on their customers likely paid hundreds of millions of dollars. The feds can grant tax and regulatory relief, which boosts profits even more. Removing the right to litigate removes consumers' ability to protect themselves from abuse. Big Government and Big Business can collude against the little guy with impunity.

And once the custom of granting immunity has the imprimatur of Congress, it won't stop with telecom companies. "There is precedent" is a compelling argument in legal circles and government agencies.

Would the Republican senators planning to bow to Bush on FISA want President Hillary Clinton following his lead? If Bush gets away with recruiting telecom companies to do for him secretly what Congress and the American people would not tolerate, any future president will be tempted to employ the same tactic.

It is particularly grotesque for this White House to advocate immunity for companies accused of violating privacy laws when perhaps no other administration in history has been so gratuitously secretive.

If you call the White House and ask who sharpens the pencils, they're likely to tell you that is classified information. Like Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush seems contemptuous of the public's right to know.

If it is their position that the American people are not entitled to know about much of the business they conduct as public servants on the public payroll working in public property, then the administration certainly is not entitled to access every American's private e-mail.

Let's be clear: The purpose of indemnifying telecom companies is not to protect Americans from terrorists. The purpose is to protect the president from embarrassment. Contrary to what Bush has said, domestic surveillance clearly is not limited to suspected terrorists.

It is a dragnet that may have ensnared 300 million Americans. Citizens are entitled to learn its scope - to know to what extent their privacy has been violated. If they can keep no secrets from their government, the government shouldn't keep that a secret from them.