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Senators introduce bill to repeal telecom wiretapping immunity

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Four Democratic senators have introduced a bill that would, if passed, repeal the legal immunity afforded the telecommunications industry for their participation in President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) announced the measure Monday. In a release, they said the bill “eliminates retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that allegedly participated in President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.”

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The four senators, all liberal Democrats, emphasized that they believed granting the industry immunity violated the law and due process.

“I believe we best defend America when we also defend its founding principles,” Dodd said in the release. “We make our nation safer when we eliminate the false choice between liberty and security. But by granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who may have participated in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, the Congress violated the protection of our citizen’s privacy and due process right and we must not allow that to stand.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) hailed the measure as a return to the rule of law.

“Last year, I opposed legislation that stripped Americans of their right to seek accountability for the Bush administration’s decision to illegally wiretap American citizens without a warrant,” Leahy said. “Today, I am pleased to join Senator Dodd to introduce the Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act. We can strengthen national security while protecting Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. Restoring Americans’ access to the courts is the first step toward bringing some measure of accountability for the Bush-Cheney administration’s decision to conduct warrantless surveillance in violation of our laws.”

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold asserted that the telecom immunity provision, contained in a revision to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Act (FISA), short-circuited the US legal system.

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“Granting retroactive immunity to companies that went along with the illegal warrantless wiretapping program was unjustified and undermined the rule of law,” Feingold said in a statement. “Congress should not have short-circuited the courts’ constitutional role in assessing the legality of the program. This bill is about ensuring that the law is followed and providing accountability for the American people.”

“During the previous administration, telecommunications companies were granted retroactive immunity for violating the rights and privacy of millions of Americans,” Merkley, the fourth and newest Democratic senator in the group, said. “I am proud to join Senator Dodd and co-sponsor the Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act to help restore accountability and increase oversight to protect the privacy rights that have been central to our nation since its inception.”

The bill will face an uphill battle in the Senate. An amendment by Dodd and Feingold to strip telecom immunity from an earlier bill was defeated 67-31 in 2008.

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