Senators want to end telecom immunity for spying

Four Democratic senators will introduce a bill to repeal lawsuit immunity for telecoms

Four Democratic US senators will introduce a bill to repeal a provision protecting telecommunications carriers from lawsuits targeting their assistance to a controversial US National Security Agency surveillance programme.

The new legislation, supported by Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Jeff Merkley of Oregon would repeal telecom immunity provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act, passed by Congress in July 2008.

The FISA Amendments Act provides some additional court oversight to the NSA wiretapping programme, which former President George Bush's administration launched after terrorist attacks on the US on September 11. 2001. The FISA Amendments Act allowed the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Programme, which targets electronic communication of some including phone calls and e-mail, to continue until the end of 2012.

Critics of the NSA program said it illegally targeted US residents' communications with people linked to terrorist groups without court-approved warrants. The programme was illegal under the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, critics said.

Current US President Barack Obama supported the FISA Amendments Act, including telecom immunity. Telecom immunity provisions were needed to protect companies that helped the US government fight terrorism in a time of need, supporters of the immunity provision said.

The new legislation, called the Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act, would allow lawsuits against telecom providers such as AT&T to resume.

"I believe we best defend America when we also defend its founding principles," Dodd said in a statement. "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."

Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was pleased to sponsor the bill.

"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," he said in a statement. "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."

The courts, and not the president or Congress, should determine whether the telecom carriers violated the law and rights of US residents, the senators said in a press release.

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