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Senate caves to Bush on telecom immunity
John Byrne
Published: Thursday October 18, 2007

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Despite an intense lobbying effort from privacy groups, the Senate sealed an expected deal this week with President Bush to grant major telecommunications companies -- including Verizon, Comcast and AT&T -- immunity from prosecution for their role in the President's warrantless eavesdropping program if they can "demonstrate to a court that they acted pursuant to a legal directive in helping the government with surveillance in the United States."

The legislation finalizes the deal between Senate Democrats and the Administration over the terms of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance. It was first reported in the Washington Post.

Earlier, Bush had pushed for immunity to be included in a six-month update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but Democrats managed to strip that provision from the bill. He said he'd refuse to sign a bill that doesn't spare prosecution for the telecommunications industry.

News reports have fingered phone companies AT&T and Verizon as major players. Both firms are entangled in several class action lawsuits for handling over millions of customer files. Verizon recently admitted that it had honored requests for information at least 720 times without a court order.

Qwest, another telecommunications firm, allegedly stood up to the Administration and refused to participate, citing doubts about the program's legality.

Republicans who support telecom immunity say that companies were doing the nation good.

"They deserve our thanks, they don't deserve to be hit with a flurry of frivolous lawsuits," House Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Lamar Smith (R-TX) told Dow Jones.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have argued in legal briefs that the companies broke the law by participating in an illegal program.


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