Thursday, October 18, 2007

Glenn Greenwald on the telecom immunity mess

Glenn Greenwald writes an incredible post through Salon about the entire telecom immunity mess:

The fact that this was completely predictable does not make it any less reprehensible:

Senate Democrats and Republicans reached agreement with the Bush administration yesterday on the terms of new legislation to control the federal government's domestic surveillance program, which includes a highly controversial grant of legal immunity to telecommunications companies that have assisted the program, according to congressional sources. . . .

The draft Senate bill has the support of the intelligence committee's chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), and Bush's director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell. It will include full immunity for those companies that can demonstrate to a court that they acted pursuant to a legal directive in helping the government with surveillance in the United States.

Such a demonstration, which the bill says could be made in secret, would wipe out a series of pending lawsuits alleging violations of privacy rights by telecommunications companies that provided telephone records, summaries of e-mail traffic and other information to the government after Sept. 11, 2001, without receiving court warrants. Bush had repeatedly threatened to veto any legislation that lacked this provision.

Let's just describe very factually and dispassionately what has happened here. Congress -- led by Senators, such as Jay Rockefeller, who have received huge payments from the telecom industry, and by privatized intelligence pioneer Mike McConnell, former Chairman of the secretive intelligence industry association that has been demanding telecom amnesty -- is going to intervene directly in the pending lawsuits against AT&T and other telecoms and declare them the winners on the ground that they did nothing wrong. Because of their vast ties to the telecoms, neither Rockefeller nor McConnell could ever appropriately serve as an actual judge in those lawsuits.

Yet here they are, meeting and reviewing secret documents and deciding amongst themselves to end all pending lawsuits in favor of their benefactors -- AT&T, Verizon and others. Let me quote again from that 1998 Foreign Affairs essay by Thomas Carothers helpfully outlining the steps required to install the "rule of law" in third-world, pre-democracy countries:

Type three reforms aim at the deeper goal of increasing government's compliance with law. A key step is achieving genuine judicial independence. . . . But the most crucial changes lie elsewhere. Above all, government officials must refrain from interfering with judicial decision-making and accept the judiciary as an independent authority.

The question of whether the telecoms acted in "good faith" in allowing warrantless government spying on their customers is already pending before a court of law. In fact, that is one of the central issues in the current lawsuits -- one that AT&T has already lost in a federal court.

Yet that is the issue that Jay Rockefeller and Mike McConnell -- operating in secret -- are taking away from the courts by passing a law declaring the telecoms to have won ("Senators this week began reviewing classified documents . . . and came away from that early review convinced that the companies had 'acted in good faith' in cooperating with what they believed was a legal and presidentially authorized program"). They are directly interfering in these lawsuits and issuing a "ruling" in favor of AT&T and other telecoms that is exactly the opposite of the one an actual court of law has already issued.

Read the rest of Greenwald's essay--it is that devastating.

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