Hear that? Those are the hosannas of civil libertarians.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, by a single vote, passed a surveillance bill yesterday. And it doesn't include retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies that complied with the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance programs. Since the Senate intelligence committee's version of the FISA Amendments Act of 2007 does have the immunity provision, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the majority leader, has the discretion to choose which bill to bring to the Senate floor for a vote.
It's more than clear by now that the White House wants the immunity provision badly. AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein says that the reason isn't to spare the telecoms financial indemnity, or a matter of "fairness," as administration officials claim. Rather, it's to stop some 40 class-action suits against the companies from revealing how massive, how domestic and how illegal warrantless surveillance was between 2001 and 2007. Revelations from those suits could even, hypothetically at least, lead to criminal charges against administration officials and telecom companies. So needless to say, the White House is none too pleased with the Senate Judiciary Committee right now. And it won't be pleased with Reid if he brings the judiciary committee's bill to the floor.
The New York Times reports that an immunity compromise pushed by Rep. Arlen Specter (R-PA) has some support:
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the panel, is pushing a plan that would substitute the federal government as the defendant in the lawsuits against the telecommunications companies. That would mean that the government, not the companies, would pay damages in successful lawsuits.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said in an interview after the vote Thursday that he would support a compromise along the lines of the Specter proposal.
Mr. Whitehouse was one of two Democrats who voted against an amendment proposed by Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, that would have banned immunity for the companies. âI think there is a good solution somewhere in the middle,â Mr. Whitehouse said.
Perhaps, but that assumes the White House wants a compromise. In another headache for President Bush, the House passed its companion surveillance bill, the Restore Act, yesterday, and that doesn't include telecom immunity either. We'll see who blinks first.