New US spy bill exposes telecoms

New US spy bill exposes telecoms

Civil rights groups applaud decision to allow lawsuits

A newly-passed US surveillance bill could open the door to lawsuits against telecommunications firms.

The bill, passed on Friday morning by the House of Representatives, would not provide immunity against legal actions to any firm which complied with the NSA's controversial warrantless wiretapping program.

That policy had been challenged by civil rights groups, which claimed that the practice was illegal and that the telecom companies broke the law by turning over records to the agency.

One group involved in such a case was the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which had filed suit against AT&T over its cooperation.

"We applaud the House for refusing to grant amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms, and for passing a bill that would allow our lawsuit against AT&T to proceed fairly and securely," said EFF senior staff attorney Kevin Bankston.

"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. Under this bill, the companies could do what they should have been able to do all along: tell that story to a judge."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised the house for passing the law despite opposition from both the president and congressional Republicans.

"In spite of partisan scare tactics, the House of Representatives rose up today and put Americans’ civil liberties concerns ahead of politics," said Caroline Fredrickson, rirector of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

"The House bill, while allowing problematic basket warrants, does ensure judicial oversight of domestic surveillance and provides a mechanism for both the telecommunications companies and their consumers to make their case in a court of law."

The victory may, however, be short-lived. The bill still must be passed by the Senate, and President Bush has vowed to veto any bill which would not provide immunity to telecoms.

The White House wasted no time in attacking the new bill.

"Today, the House of Representatives took a significant step backward in defending our country against terrorism and passed a partisan bill that will please class-action trial lawyers at the expense of our national security," said deputy press secretary Tony Fratto.

"The good news is that the House bill will be dead on arrival in the Senate and, in any event, would be vetoed by the President if it ever got to his desk."