Bush and the Phone Companies: Partners in Crime

Phone companies have opened a new front in their campaign against the free flow of information. This time they've found a powerful ally in the White House.

AT&T and Verizon have already shown their disdain for free speech and Net Neutrality, and their eagerness to let government spies lurk on our phone calls. Now, their lobbyists have teamed with President George Bush to strong arm Congress into granting full immunity for a disturbing array of illegal and unconstitutional acts.

A handful of legislators, though, are holding out against the pressure, which is no small feat given the extreme powers behind the amnesty grab.

Money, Politics and the Law

Both Verizon and AT&T spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign contributions, congressional junkets, Washington lawyers, lobbyists and PR campaigns.

Much of this political clout is now being focused on one issue: elevating phone companies above the law so they can invade our homes via phone lines, the Internet and other modern communications -- acting as the ultimate gatekeepers against the free flow of information.

Earlier this year they were caught handing over customer phone records to the National Security Agency (NSA). The phone companies first denied it and then started a quiet campaign with the White House to gain immunity from any lawsuits.

The campaign got a lot louder on Wednesday, when President Bush told reporters that he would veto a new FISA eavesdropping bill that doesn't grant retroactive immunity to the phone companies.

Thus far, about 40 active lawsuits name several telecommunications companies for alleged violations of wiretapping laws. Other suits are in the works, pending this legislation.

A Few Brave Congress People

Despite the intense pressure from lobbyists and the White House, Americans are telling Congress that they're fed up with the abuse.

On Wednesday, some of our representatives showed that they were listening. The House Judiciary Committee voted down an amendment to the FISA bill, which would have granted legal immunity to Verizon and AT&T for an as yet unspecified list of legal violations. (The White House and NSA have thus far refused to reveal to us just how far the phone company legal abuse has gone).

Democrats will bring the bills to the full House for passage next week. The Senate Intelligence Committee will be introducing its own bill. The House move against immunity should serve as a guide for their colleagues in Senate chambers. [See update below]

Telecommunication companies are among the most powerful political donors in the United States. They have also worked hand-in-hand with the Bush administration to whittle away our constitutional freedoms, all the while seeking special policy favors and a rubber stamp for a recent spate of mega-billion-dollar telco mergers.

Protecting Free Speech Everywhere: Democracy's Last Stand

Today's committee vote might be a hopeful sign that their political clout has its limits. But this fight is far from over. Bush is still threatening to veto any legislation that doesn't hold his telco friends above the law.

It begs the question: Why would someone stick out his neck so far to protect such bad actors?

Amnesty for AT&T and Verizon for illegally wiretapping Americans is a stunning example of the ways this White House sides with their corporate benefactors against the most fundamental democratic principles. The Bush administration would rather flout the laws for themselves and other friends in high places than protect the free speech and privacy of law abiding Americans.

Phone companies can't be trusted to act in good faith to protect the free flow of information. The White House can't be trusted to stand with ordinary Americans and the Constitution against its own special interests. Congress must step in to protect our rights to use phones, text messaging and the Internet with policies that keep the lines open, neutral and free of corporate and government gatekeepers.

The fight for these basic freedoms will be fought in Congress. It's time everyone got involved.

[UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reports that the Senate version of the bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D - W. Va.) DOES contain full retroactive amnesty for the telcos. Greenwald points to Rockefeller's long history on the receiving end of phone company contributions as possible explanation]


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