House votes against telcom immunity for illegal wiretapping

The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday that rejects immunity for telephone companies that helped the NSA conduct illegal, warrantless wiretaps of the entire nation. Included in the bill is a call for a commission with subpoena power to investigate the spying program.

Bush has promised to veto any version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that fails to immunize the telcoms, but if he does not sign this bill, the ability of law enforcement entities to conduct surveillance will be severely curtailed. The question for Bush now is, "Will you admit that you live in a nation of laws, and that you can't order companies to break them with impunity, or will you undermine the fight against terrorism to keep your buddies at AT&T from facing the music?"

Instead of caving to that rhetoric, the House Democrats doubled down on their original legislation, by including a call for a commission, armed with subpoena power, that would investigate the secret spying. The bill also allows telecoms to defend themselves in court by showing secret documents to federal judge. The Bush administration had blocked them from using classified information in their own defense.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which brought the leading suit against the nation's telecoms, applauded the House's moxie.

"Amnesty proponents have been claiming on the Hill for months that phone companies like AT&T had a good faith belief that the NSA program was legal," EFF senior staff attorney Kevin Bankston said. "Under this bill, the companies could do what they should have been able to do all along: tell that story to a judge."

The White House had no such kind words, saying the bill was "partisan" and would be "dead on arrival" in the Senate.