Watch CBSN Live

Reid Sets Stage For Telecom Immunity Fight

By producer David Morgan.
Two months ago, President Bush made a strong argument for updating a law which oversees the government's ability to engage in surveillance of Americans and non-citizens, which requires warrants from a secret court. He spoke of the importance to our nation's security to have a bill ready for him to sign, so as to not "limit" his administration's anti-terrorism activities.

"Congress and the President have no higher responsibility than protecting the American people from enemies who attacked our country," he said.

But underneath this urgency was a threat: Even if Congress sent him an updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill with the provisions he said were required to pursue wiretaps of individuals with a minimum of judicial oversight, Mr. Bush said he would veto it if it did not also include an extraneous provision: immunity to telecommunications companies from liability for their past participation in the administration's wiretaps.

Without quite admitting the program's existence, Mr. Bush said that the bill must "grant liability protection to companies who are facing multi-billion-dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks."

In other words, AT&T, Verizon and other companies which allowed the government to listen in on phone calls knowing there were no warrants, could not be brought to court and potentially pay damages for violating customers' privacy.

Since the Bush administration's program of eavesdropping and data mining of information from Americans without obtaining warrants (as is required under the Constitution) came to light, and lawsuits have moved forward in courts, more and more details have come out about the program's extent and the telecoms' involvement.

Still, much information remains classified, and some say the only way by which a full accounting for the program may come is when documents and testimony are brought before the court - a prospect the White House has been fighting since the program become known.

Now the issue of telecom immunity to rising to a boil, as the Senate prepares to vote (possibly on Monday) on the FISA bill.

The Senate actually has two versions: one which includes an immunity provision (as written by the Senate Intelligence Committee), and a second without it. It is these two competing drafts which have landed on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

On Friday, Reid announced in the Senate that he would be moving the Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC) version of the bill to the floor.

What followed was a firestorm by Democrats and consumer activists who feared that the immunity provision would succeed in a vote, despite threats of a filibuster by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.

"Providing retroactive immunity to companies that may have violated the law will set a dangerous precedent," said Dodd. "Companies who violated the trust of thousands of their customers will be immune to prosecution and the details of their actions will stay hidden.

"The President, and his Administration, has consistently used scare tactics in an attempt to force Congress to pass FISA legislation that provides retroactive immunity," Dodd said.

Dodd had placed a "hold" on the legislation, which ordinarily blocks a bill from coming to vote, but Reid is apparently ignoring the hold.

Other Democrats (including those Senators running for President) have said they will support Dodd's filibuster.

And earlier this week, 14 Democrats sent a letter to Reid asking that he move the Judiciary Committee's version (without immunity) forward, because its provision had been debated in open sessions.

Reid's office was reportedly inundated with phone calls and messages from citizens who did not want Congress to allow immunity to telecoms, before their actions have even been detailed in a court of law.

The heat seemed to have stirred Reid, who later in the day indicated that he would actually bring both versions of the FISA bill up for a vote.

Reid said that he personally opposed the concept of retroactive immunity in the Intelligence Committee bill, and favored many additional protections that were included in the Judiciary Committee's bill.

Nonetheless, Reid said that because there was overwhelming support on the Intelligence Committee for its approach, and after discussion with Committee chairmen Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., he decided that he would move forward with both bills.

"I have determined that in this situation, it would be wrong of me to simply choose one committee's bill over the other," Reid said in a statement.

Since the Intelligence Committee's bill was voted out first, that will be the base text; the Judiciary Committee's bill would be pending as a substitute amendment.

Reid appeared to address the concerns of critics of immunity by stating his own opposition to blocking court cases in warrantless wiretaps, saying, "In one way or another, we must ensure that President Bush is held accountable for his actions."

But both bills coming up appears to presage a showdown: a promised Democratic filibuster to keep the telcom immunity provision out, versus an apparent Republican filibuster to keep it in.

Would a sixty-vote Senate be able to pass either bill?

On Friday, Reid did make one statement that seemed prescient: "I'll guarantee you right now, one thing that's going to occur: not everyone will be happy."

Perhaps no one will be.