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Democrats refuse immunity for warrantless wiretappers

Telco showdown with Bushie

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Democrats in the US House of Representatives defied President Bush on Tuesday by refusing to pass an overhauled surveillance law that shields telecommunication companies from lawsuits alleging they aided government eavesdropping without the required court order.

Instead, they proposed the establishment of a bipartisan commission similar to the one that investigated the 9/11 attacks that would investigate the Bush administration's secret wiretapping program. They also offered the telecom companies the chance to defend themselves in court using classified documents that up to now have been inadmissible.

President Bush has proclaimed immunity essential to any bill passed and has vowed to veto any proposal that doesn't contain the provision. On Tuesday he declared the latest measure "dead on arrival."

The provisions were contained in a 119-page draft bill (PDF) that proposes a broad expansion of the of the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The bill could come to the floor as early as Thursday, according to reports by the Associated Press and others.

The bill is at odds with a similar bill already passed by the Senate that grants retroactive immunity to telecoms that participated in the wireless surveillance program. AT&T and other companies face almost 40 lawsuits alleging the assistance breached customers' privacy rights.

President Bush, invoking a "state secrets" privilege, has barred the companies from revealing secret government documents, a move that effectively prevents them from proving they acted legally. Under the House Democrats' proposal, the judge presiding over the cases would have authority to review the evidence in secret. ®

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