What: All Issues : War & Peace : Intelligence Agencies' Oversight : S 2248. (Revisions to foreign intelligence surveillance law) Specter of Pennsylvania amendment that would make the federal government the defendant in suits brought against telecom companies for their participation in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program/On agreeing to the amendment (2008 senate Roll Call 17)
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S 2248. (Revisions to foreign intelligence surveillance law) Specter of Pennsylvania amendment that would make the federal government the defendant in suits brought against telecom companies for their participation in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program/On agreeing to the amendment
senate Roll Call 17     Feb 12, 2008
Progressive Position:
Yea
Progressive Result:
Loss

This vote was on an amendment by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would make the federal government the defendant in suits brought against telecommunications companies for participating in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. and one of the Senate's more progressive members, cosponsored the amendment.

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.

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 amendment was offered to a bill would grant retroactive legal immunity from prosecution to these telecom companies.

Specter's amendment was intended to be a compromise position between the underlying bill's provision, which would provide blanket immunity, and what many Democrats wanted, which was removing the immunity provision completely.. Specter's amendment would place the federal government in the role of defendant, freeing the companies from blame, while still allowing the courts to decide whether or not the White House's actions were appropriate.

Specter said his amendment would "maintain some check and balance on the executive because Congress has been totally ineffective to do so. It accomplishes both purposes. It keeps the program going to gain intelligence information necessary for national defense, but it maintains the courts being open as a check and balance."

John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he can see no benefit to the amendment, and that the underlying bill's provision granting the companies legal immunity is the way to go.

"Providers who acted in good faith should be removed from ongoing litigation, without having the burden of responding to discovery and litigation requests and without the reputational harm of having suits in their name go forward against the government. Ongoing reminders of the potential pitfalls of cooperating in good faith with the government will not encourage these companies—whose assistance the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies desperately need—to cooperate with the government in the future," Rockefeller said.

By a vote of 30-68, the Senate rejected the amendment. All but one Republican present voted against the amendment (Specter). Of Democrats present, 28 voted for the amendment, and 20 voted against it. (The Senate's most progressive members all voted yes.) Thus, the measure went forward without language that would have substituted the federal government as the defendant in suits brought against telecom companies that participated in the government's warrantless wiretapping program.

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