National Security Immunity Sought for Phone Firms

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Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell says phone companies that cooperated with government eavesdropping programs after the Sept. 11 attacks deserve retroactive immunity from civil rights lawsuits. But is the Bush administration, which is pressing Congress to extend the immunity, simply trying to avoid embarrassing disclosures?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Recriminations continue today between the White House and Congress over the nation's spying laws. House Democratic leaders decided to begin a 12-day recess without replacing a temporary law that expires tomorrow. President Bush says the country will now be in greater danger of an attack

As NPR's David Welna reports, the fight is mainly over whether U.S. telecommunications firms should receive legal immunity for helping the government carry out five years of warrantless wiretaps.

DAVID WELNA: For weeks, the White House has been warning that if Congress failed to replace the temporary bill expanding the government's spying powers, the United States' ability to monitor suspected terrorists would be compromised. But today, just hours before that law was due to expire, the nation's top intelligence official said such an intelligence blackout was not the real issue.

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told NPR what really matters is retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms that face dozens of lawsuits.

Mr. MICHAEL McCONNELL (Director of National Intelligence): The issue is liability protection for the private sector. We can't do this mission without their help. Currently, there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They're being sued for billions of dollars. So the board fiduciary responsibilities causes them to be less cooperative.

WELNA: President Bush reinforced McConnell's warning a short time later at the White House.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: These telephone companies that worked collaboratively with us to protect the American people are afraid they're going to get sued. And the American people got to understand, these lawsuits make it harder for us to convince people to help protect you.

WELNA: But as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer points out, the underlying Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, remains enforced. And that law provides immunity for phone companies as long as the government certifies their assistance is within the law.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): I am absolutely convinced that the telecom companies, patriotic companies that they are, given an order from a court in the United States of America - FISA court or any other court - will, in fact, follow that order as they have in other cases.

WELNA: The problem, says House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, is that lawmakers don't know whether the law was broken or not.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee): You can't grant any kind of immunity, much less retroactive immunity, unless you know what it is you're immunizing. And that's the predicament that a lot of my friends in the Congress feel very strongly about.

WELNA: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warns that Democrats will be feeling the heat for not coming up with a new law granting immunity.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): I think this will be the biggest story through the recess, and people will be asked about it all over the country, and they'll have to decide how to answer the question.

WELNA: House Democrats insist they were right not to simply pass the Senate's bill which has immunity in it. Instead, they say, a compromise should be worked out with the House bill, which has no immunity. House Intelligence chair Silvestre Reyes says Democrats won't be stampeded by the White House.

Representative SILVESTRE REYES (Democrat, Texas; Chairman, House Intelligence Committee): I think the disappointment on the part of the administration, and Director McConnell as well, has been that their Chicken Little strategy didn't work this time.

WELNA: The sky isn't falling, apparently.

Rep. REYES: Not only is it not falling, it's being very well monitored by all our intelligence capabilities.

WELNA: Reyes says he hopes there will be a compromise on immunity within three weeks.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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