Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bush admits telecoms spied

Bush admits telecoms spied

John Byrne and Nick Juliano

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In Oval Office address, president pledges veto of any temporary FISA expansions

Well, he finally dropped the "allegedly." President Bush at long last admitted what everyone has suspected for years -- the nation's telecommunications companies closely cooperated with the National Security Agency and his administration to implement large-scale spying on Americans.

Bush was praising the Senate for approving his long-sought update to a foreign surveillance law. Critics say the bill legalizes his warrantless wiretapping program, which was implemented outside the boundaries of the law, and frees phone and internet companies from any responsibility for violating customers' privacy.

"The senate bill also provides fair and just liability protections for companies that did the right thing and assisted in defending America, after the attacks of Sept. 11," Bush said.

As recently as his State of the Union address, Bush would only call for legal immunity for companies "believed to have assisted" in his so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Bush's admission came a day after his press secretary similarly acknowledged phone company cooperation. Also Tuesday, the Director of National Intelligence sought to suppress as "Top Secret" evidence of a phone conversation between a telecom company representative and a DNI lawyer.

Speaking from the Oval Office Wednesday morning, Bush threw down the gauntlet and issued a stern warning to the House. He admonished the chamber for failing to rubber-stamp the White House approved bill, which 18 Democrats joined every Republican and Joe Lieberman to do Tuesday. Democrats in the House, on the other hand, approved a bill updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance without granting legal immunity.

Bush has pleged to veto any bill without immunity, and he said Tuesday that he would not accept any more temporary FISA extensions. By midnight Saturday, when a stop-gap extension expires, Bush said he will get what he wants or do nothing to stop what he says are vital gaps in intelligence collection re-open.

On the eve of a vote to give telephone companies immunity for their alleged participation in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretap program, White House spokesperson Dana Perino admitted that the companies actually spied.

Because they were patriotic.

"The telephone companies that were alleged to have helped their country after 9/11 did so because they are patriotic and they certainly helped us and they helped us save lives," Perino told reporters at Tuesday's press briefing.

The admission, while possibly a verbal slip-up, was first noticed by Ryan Singer, of Wired.

The Senate gave the phone companies immunity by a 69-29 vote. It passed wiretapping bill in its entirety just before 6pm ET, 68-29.

Earlier this afternoon, the immunity measure's staunchest opponent, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), announced he would abandon his effort to block the bill with a filibuster, arguing that the House, which has passed an immunity-free bill, would be a better place to try to strip immunity from Congress's final piece of legislation.

"We lost every single battle we had on this bill," Dodd said on a conference call Tuesday with reporters and bloggers. "And the question is now, Can we do better with the House carrying the ball on this bill?"

The bill to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including a provision granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated government spying, passed the Senate on a 68-29 vote Tuesday evening.


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