RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration asked the nation's big phone companies to give the government access to their phone and Internet records without a warrant. It appears all but one of them complied.
Those phone companies now face more than 40 lawsuits. Today the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on a bill revising the federal wiretap law. The committee members must also decide a key question: Should they go along with another committee and approve a provision shielding the phone companies from lawsuits?
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: Under intense pressure from the White House, the Senate Intelligence Committee last month put immunity for phone companies into a bill revising the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Like almost everyone on that panel, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch voted for the bill. He also sits on the Judiciary Committee that takes up that bill today. Hatch went to the Senate floor yesterday, where he declared the companies that cooperated with federal authorities don't deserve, as he put it, a kick in the gut but rather a round of applause.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Any company that has done its part to provide for the protection of American families deserves protection in return. And we have always done so in the past. If not, the next time we reach out for a helping hand, we will be the ones to receive a slap to the face, and really, who could blame them?
WELNA: The phone companies' actions are also being defended by some Senate Democrats. Like Orrin Hatch, California's Dianne Feinstein is on both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. She's one of those who voted for immunity.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): These are large corporations, true. They cannot mount their own defense under this law, and I think everybody on both sides of this aisle believes that every defendant is entitled to defend themselves. The exception is in the intelligence area - and so this is a big problem.
WELNA: That's because the Bush administration says state secrets are involved in the lawsuits, so the phone companies can't discuss them. Still, Arlen Specter, Judiciary's top Republican, declared last week he was concerned more about the phone companies' customers than about the companies themselves.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): It's unwise to grant retroactive immunity because it would foreclose litigants - people who claim their privacy has been invaded - would foreclose them from having a day in court.
WELNA: Specter has suggested substituting the federal government for the phone companies as the lawsuit's defendant. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell says that would only make matters worse.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): I mean, why in the world should the American taxpayer have to subsidize plaintiffs who are suing companies for answering the request of their government to help protect the American public from further attack?
WELNA: It's not clear whether any Democrats other than Dianne Feinstein will vote today to keep the immunity provision. One of them, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, urged fellow panel members last week to oppose it.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): If we want companies to follow the law in the future, it sends a terrible message and sets a terrible precedent to grant a new form of retroactive blanket immunity for alleged cooperation with an illegal program. It would also very likely prevent the courts from ruling on the warrantless wiretapping program, which would explain why the administration is pushing so hard for it.
WELNA: All sides agree the immunity dispute will eventually get fought out on the Senate floor.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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