What: All Issues : War & Peace : Intelligence Agencies' Oversight : S 2248. (Revisions to foreign intelligence surveillance law) Motion to kill an amendment that would erase language granting telecommunications companies that shared private consumer records immunity from prosecution/On the motion (2008 senate Roll Call 2)
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S 2248. (Revisions to foreign intelligence surveillance law) Motion to kill an amendment that would erase language granting telecommunications companies that shared private consumer records immunity from prosecution/On the motion
senate Roll Call 2     Jan 24, 2008
Progressive Position:
Nay
Progressive Result:
Loss

This vote was on a motion to table (or kill) an amendment that would have stripped the underlying bill of a provision granting retroactive legal immunity from prosecution to telecommunications companies that shared customers' private telephone records with the government. Several lawsuits have been brought against telecommunications firms that disclosed private consumer records to the government as part of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. As a result, the White House has pressed Congress to grant the companies immunity from prosecution.

The issue of warrantless wiretaps came to a head in 2005 when a series of news reports revealed that the administration had used an executive order to circumvent the court system and collect information about Americans, without a warrant, by petitioning telecommunications providers for phone records and more. It resulted in a firestorm of controversy over balancing the government's need to collect time-sensitive intelligence information from terrorist targets, and the public's right to privacy and due process.

This amendment was one of several that the Senate dealt with during consideration of the underlying bill, which makes revisions to electronic surveillance laws. The amendment in question was offered by Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had approved the language last year.

"Now, without this provision from the Judiciary bill, the Government's dissemination and use of information on innocent law-abiding Americans will occur without any checks and balances whatsoever, no checks and balances at all," said Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "Once again, ‘trust us' will have to do. Now, I believe in this case, as in so many others, "trust us" is not enough. The Judiciary bill offers other types of oversight, as well. For one thing, it requires relevant inspectors general to conduct a complete review of the President's illegal wiretapping program, which, frankly, is long overdue."

Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said telecommunications companies at the time thought they did not need to fear prosecution because they were simply complying with an official request from the federal government, but that when they were hit with lawsuits, the government tied the companies' hands in presenting their defense, citing national security reasons.

"So we have created a situation in which companies have cooperated with law enforcement to keep our country safe, and then, when the lawsuits arose, they were not allowed to defend themselves. Now, some of my colleagues say: Well, that is tough. They should have known better," Hutchison said. "We are talking about the security of our country. The people who are in the business of telecommunications were asked to be patriotic Americans. And they said yes. So if we do not give them protection for these actions, as well as those going forward, we are going to put our businesses in an untenable situation. Either they can help law enforcement, be sued and hampered in their legal defense because they are not able to introduce certain types of evidence because of security reasons, or they can say no to law enforcement and put our country in jeopardy."

By a vote of 60-36, the Senate tabled (killed) the amendment. Every Republican present voted to kill the amendment. Most Democrats, including progressives, voted against tabling the amendment, but 12 voted with Republicans. Thus, the amendment was killed, and the measure went forward with liability protections for telecommunications providers intact.

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