PORTLAND -- Scores of Maine lawyers have joined forces to ask Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to reject a Senate bill that would grant retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who allegedly provided their customers personal information to the National Security Agency without proper warrants. That bill is due to be considered by the Senate this week. A letter to the Senators signed by 108 Maine attorneys is attached.
The companies’ actions have brought challenges and lawsuits from various states, including Maine where the issue is the subject of a consumer complaint pending before the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The federal government has sued the Maine PUC to prevent the complaint from moving forward. The Senate bill (S.2248) would end the Maine PUC’s efforts to determine if the companies have complied with the law here. Many state lawyers believe that the telecom immunity provisions represent a further erosion of Constitutional protections.
"As lawyers, we operate every day within the rule of law and the Constitution, and it is troubling to see them cast aside for the government’s short term needs," said John Paterson, an attorney with Bernstein Shur and a member of the MCLU Board of Directors who has signed the letter. "Congress should not endorse the illegal activity of the Administration and the telephone companies by exempting them from legal review."
In addition to protecting the phone companies from prosecution for their activities, the bill to be considered this week would loosen the requirements for surveillance, allowing the government to widen its warrantless net in gathering information on people’s telephone and e-mail records. It would extend and worsen some of the most troubling parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) law, which was modified after 9/11 to make it easier for the government to collect information. The Senate Bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) would allow the government to gather telephone and e-mail information on residents for up to a year, without a specific warrant, as long as one party to the conversation is foreign. It would codify the FISA changes that were passed in August, and are due to expire on February 1.
"The Bill of Rights is supposed to protect us from unwarranted government intrusion," said Orlando Delogu, a professor of law who is one of the one hundred and eight attorneys to sign the letter. "Instead of rushing to grant immunity, Congress should carefully consider how best to limit FISA to more fully protect Americans’ civil liberties."
According to MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows, the vote on the bill could come as early as this week and is expected to be close. The House passed a similar bill that does not contain telecom immunity in November of 2007.
"When Maine telephone customers asked the Maine Public Utilities Commission to examine the warrantless surveillance program, the Maine state government was willing to stand up for Mainers’ privacy and pushed forward even in the face of a federal lawsuit," said Shenna Bellows. "Now Mainers are calling on Senators Snowe and Collins to defend their privacy in Washington."