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Bush says House aiding 'trial lawyers' by not granting telco immunity
David Edwards and Nick Juliano
Published: Thursday March 13, 2008

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UPDATE: Feingold fires back at Bush's 'transparent fear mongering'

Growing increasingly frustrated at House Democrats' refusal to give him the authority he's demanded on terrorist-surveillance legislation, President Bush has resorted to using increasingly partisan and misleading rhetoric, immunity opponents charge.

The House is expected to vote Thursday on a bill to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that does not include retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that facilitated the warrantless surveillance of Americans. An immunity provision would spare these companies the burden of defending themselves in about 40 pending lawsuits alleging they violated customers' privacy rights.

Bush has insisted that the companies' actions were legal, but the administration has scuttled Congressional attempts to verify his "trust me" approach. His latest rhetorical flourish unearths one of the conservatives' favorite bogeymen -- "trial lawyers" -- to argue for immunity.

"The House bill may be good for class action trial lawyers, but it would be terrible for the United States," Bush said.

The president is turning up his rhetorical heat in the latest address. He made the same argument in a press conference two weeks ago. He used the less-charged descriptor, "plaintiff's attorneys," although he did say they were looking for a "financial gravy train."

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), one of the leading immunity opponents in Congress, fired back after Bush's speech.

�The President�s fear-mongering and efforts to mislead the American people have become increasingly transparent," Feingold said in a prepared statement. "The House should continue to stand up to these tactics and decline to grant immunity to companies that allegedly cooperated in the president�s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. It is unacceptable that this administration seems to be more interested in avoiding all accountability for the program than it is in working with Congress to pass a bill that both allows us to aggressively go after suspected terrorists and protects the privacy of innocent Americans.�

The American Civil Liberties Union, which along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing plaintiffs against the telecoms, has said the lawsuits are about protecting the constitution, not collecting a paycheck. And immunity opponents point out that if the telecoms really did act within the law, as Bush insists, they already are immune from prosecution.

"It's critical to emphasize ... that the telecoms already have immunity under existing statutes, even if they broke the law, as long as they obtained from the Attorney General certifications that the warrantless surveillance requests were legal," writes Glenn Greenwald, who has closely followed the FISA debate (emphasis in original). "If the telecoms really did obtain those certifications -- and it's extremely unlikely that they did -- then all they ever had to do was just show them to the court and they would be immune."

The House bill seeks a compromise over how telecoms will approach their court battles that stops short of a full grant of retroactive immunity.

But they offered the companies an olive branch: the chance to use classified government documents to defend themselves in court.

House Democratic leaders unveiled a bill that they hoped would bridge the gap between the electronic surveillance bill passed by the Senate last month and a rival version the House approved last fall.

The House bill also would create a bipartisan commission, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the Bush administration's secret wiretapping program.

Sticking to his all-or-nothing approach to updating the surveillance law, Bush panned all of those proposals, and he continued to claim that the US was more vulnerable because the FISA expansion remained in limbo. (The president earlier pledged to veto a temporary measure aimed at closing those so-called vital gaps.)

He called on the House not to leave tomorrow for its Easter recess without passing a FISA bill identical to one already passed in the Senate, where a dozen Democrats joined Republicans in giving Bush everything he wanted.

This video is from CNN's Newsroom, broadcast March 13, 2008.