Dodd looking to wipe out immunity provisions for telecoms

UPDATED: 8:49 AM Rejoining the fight over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, Sen. Chris Dodd said Monday he would join a handful of colleagues seeking to strip the pre-emptive immunity granted to telecom companies that helped the government listen in on phone lines without court approval.

Dodd, a Democrat and Connecticut's senior senator, announced that he would co-sponsor a bill stripping away the immunity provisions included in a reform of wiretapping regulations that passed over his objections in 2008.

That earlier reform bill included immunity provisions for the telecommunications companies that participated in the Bush administration's top-secret domestic spying program, in which the administration intercepted communications without informing high-ranking members of Congress or obtaining clearance from so-called FISA courts, which exist to vet and authorize clandestine intelligence gathering by the government.

"I believe we best defend America when we also defend its founding principles," Dodd said in a written statement, which announced he would co-sponsor the new legislation with Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

"We make our nation safer when we eliminate the false choice between liberty and security," Dodd said. "But by granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who may have participated in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, the Congress violated the protection of our citizens' privacy and due process right and we must not allow that to stand."

But the Bush administration and some prominent Democrats managed to win passage of the immunity provisions, which indemnify the companies from civil lawsuits over their roles in the program by arguing that anything else would discourage corporations from cooperating in future efforts to combat terrorism.

Dodd's resumption of the immunity fight comes almost two years after he first attempted to block efforts to shield the telecom companies. Dodd threatened to filibuster an immunity provision in October 2007. He took a break from his long-shot bid for the presidential nomination in December of that year, leaving Iowa - where his hopes for the Democratic nomination rested on a strong showing - to block the Senate's adoption of immunity for the phone companies.

But Democratic leaders struck a deal with the Bush administration the following spring and overwhelmingly approved a FISA reform bill that shielded telecom companies from lawsuits. An amendment by Dodd and Feingold to strip the immunity out of that bill was defeated 67-31 in February 2008.

Among those voting for the Dodd amendment: then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

t.mann@theday.com

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