Civil liberties and media reform group Free Press called on the U.S. Congress to reject bills that would give retroactive legal immunity to telecommunication carriers that helped the government monitor phone calls and e-mail after Vice President Dick Cheney pushed for the legislation.
Cheney and the White House this week pushed Congress to extend the surveillance authorization bill, the Protect America Act, which expires on Feb. 1. Cheney, speaking last week at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, also called on Congress to grant legal immunity to telecom carriers that participated in a U.S. National Security Agency program that allowed the NSA to intercept communications of some U.S. residents without court authorization.
It's "entirely appropriate" for U.S. intelligence agencies to seek help from private-sector companies, because agencies don't have the facilities to conduct all the surveillance needed to keep the U.S. safe, Cheney said in the speech, made available on YouTube.
"Some [telecom] providers are facing dozens of lawsuits right now," Cheney said. "Why? Because they are believed to have aided the U.S. government in the effort to intercept international communications of al Qaeda-related individuals."
Even if the lawsuits are dismissed, defending them will place an "enormous burden" on telecom providers, and the lawsuits could stop other companies from cooperating with U.S. authorities in the future, Cheney added. "Liability protection, retroactive to [the Sept. 11 attacks] is the right thing to do, it's the right thing to help us prevent another 9/11 down the road," he said.
AT&T and other telecom carriers are being sued in U.S. court in San Francisco by civil liberties groups and individuals who allege that the surveillance program is illegal.
Free Press countered Cheney's remarks by saying telecom carriers should be held accountable for illegal spying.
"Phone companies are supposed to deliver our messages, not spy on them," Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, said in a statement. "But at every turn, these telco giants trample on basic constitutional principles of privacy and free speech. When you break the law you should face the consequences."
The lawsuits will show U.S. residents that phone company spying "will not be tolerated," he added.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called the Protect America Act, the "Police America Act." The legislation "allows for massive, untargeted collection of international communications without court order or meaningful oversight by either Congress or the courts," the ACLU says on its Web site. "It contains virtually no protections for the U.S. end of the phone call or e-mail, leaving decisions about the collection, mining and use of Americans' private communications up to this administration."
Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said Wednesday he'll block the legislation with a filibuster if it comes to the Senate floor with telecom immunity provisions attached.
"Few things are more detrimental to this country than the erosion of and attack on the civil liberties we enjoy," Dodd said in a statement. "More and more, Americans are rejecting the false choice that has come to define this administration: security or liberty, but never, ever both."