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Context of 'December 16, 2007: Bush Administration Pushing for Immunity for Telecom Firms Who Cooperated with NSA Domestic Wiretapping Program'

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Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, writes an op-ed for the New York Times pushing for Congressional immunity for US telecommunications firms over their cooperation with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Under August’s Protect America Act, McConnell writes, the country is “safer” from terrorist attacks while the privacy of US citizens is protected (see August 5, 2007). The government has “greater understanding of international [al-]Qaeda networks, and the law has allowed us to obtain significant insight into terrorist planning.” But the Act expires in two months, and McConnell wants it re-enacted and significantly expanded “if we are to stay ahead of terrorists who are determined to attack the United States.” Echoing the arguments of Bush administration officials, McConnell attacks the “outdated” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as significantly hindering the government’s “ability to collect timely foreign intelligence.” McConnell complains: “Our experts were diverted from tracking foreign threats to writing lengthy justifications to collect information from a person in a foreign country, simply to satisfy an outdated statute that did not reflect the ways our adversaries communicate. The judicial process intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans was applied instead to foreign intelligence targets in foreign countries. This made little sense, and the Protect America Act eliminated this problem.” McConnell calls for new legislation that would obviate the need for intelligence agencies such as the NSA to seek warrants to monitor US citizens’ telephone and e-mail communications: “The intelligence community should spend its time protecting our nation, not providing privacy protections to foreign terrorists and other diffuse international threats.” He also calls for retroactive immunity for “private parties”—i.e. the US telecommunications companies—that are subject to lawsuits over their cooperation with the NSA in monitoring US communications. “The intelligence community cannot go it alone,” he writes. “Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits.” Two days later, new Attorney General Michael Mukasey will write a virtually identical op-ed for the Los Angeles Times (see December 12, 2007). [New York Times, 12/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Bush administration (43), Mike McConnell, New York Times, Protect America Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Bush administration begins a push to get Congress to pass legislation to protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits over their assistance with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. This is part of the administration’s long and sometimes uneasy partnership with the telecom industry to conduct a wide range of secret anti-terrorism surveillance operations. The firms fear further lawsuits and more public exposure, and some have refused outright to cooperate (see February 27, 2001 and 1990s).
Fiber Optics - Twenty years ago, the NSA had little difficulty in monitoring telephone communications because older technology relied on broadcast signals carried by microwave towers and satellite relays; the agency used its own satellite dishes to cull the signals. But fiber optic communications are much more difficult to tap, forcing the agency to seek the cooperation of the telecoms to monitor their signals.
Relationship - “It’s a very frayed and strained relationship right now, and that’s not a good thing for the country in terms of keeping all of us safe,” says an industry official in favor of immunity for the telecoms. “This episode has caused companies to change their conduct in a variety of ways.” Both the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, and the new Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, write virtually identical op-eds in recent days calling for passage of legislation to grant immunity to the telecoms and remove the need to obtain warrants to wiretap Americans’ communications (see December 10, 2007 and December 12, 2007).
Two Bills - Currently, two bills are before Congress: one largely crafted by Republicans and passed on by the Senate Intelligence Committee that would grant retroactive immunity to the telecoms, and another from the House Judiciary Committee that would not. The White House says President Bush will veto any legislation that does not grant immunity to the telecoms. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]

Entity Tags: Mike McConnell, Bush administration (43), Center for National Security Studies, Michael Mukasey, National Security Agency, Senate Intelligence Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey pen a letter to Silvestre Reyes (D-TX, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, claiming that because the Democratically led Congress has allowed the Protect America Act (PAA) to expire (see February 16, 2008), the government is losing critically needed intelligence on potential terrorist threats. McConnell and Mukasey do not include any evidence of the claim in their letter. In the six days since the PAA expired, the two write, some of the government’s “partners” in intelligence operations—US telecommunications firms—have “reduced [their] cooperation” in the government’s warrantless wiretapping program. The two officials do not name which firms they say have cut back on their cooperation. The telecom firms are more reluctant to continue their cooperation with the government because they do not have retroactive legal immunity from civil and criminal charges for their cooperation in the past. The Bush administration and Congressional Republicans allowed the PAA to expire rather than approve an extension of the law that did not include an immunity clause (see February 23, 2008). In their letter, McConnell and Mukasey claim that since the Protect America Act lapsed, telecom firms “have delayed or refused compliance with our requests to initiate new surveillances of terrorist and other foreign intelligence targets under existing directives issued pursuant to the Protect America Act.” They add, “Although most partners intend to cooperate for the time being, they have expressed deep misgivings about doing so in light of the uncertainty and have indicated that they may well cease to cooperate if the uncertainty persists.” McConnell and Mukasey write that if Congress does not extend immunity to the telecom firms, the firms will continue to be reluctant to cooperate with the surveillance program: “This uncertainty may well continue to cause us to miss information that we otherwise would be collecting.” A day later, the two retract their claim (see February 23, 2008). Reyes and other Democrats have accused the administration of exaggerating the claims of threats to national security because of their refusal to grant the telecoms immunity; some have accused the administration of “fearmongering” and employing “scare tactics.” [Newsweek, 2/22/2008; Newsweek, 2/22/2008; Politico, 2/22/2008]
Democrats Take 'Strong Offense' to Charges - In a joint statement, Reyes, Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), and other Democrats respond to McConnell and Mukasey’s letter: “Further politicizing the debate, the administration today announced that they believe there have been gaps in security since the Protect America Act expired. They cannot have it both ways; if it is true that the expiration of the PAA has caused gaps in intelligence, then it was irresponsible for the president and congressional Republicans to openly oppose an extension of the law. Accordingly, they should join Democrats in extending it until we can resolve our differences.” [Newsweek, 2/22/2008] Reyes says: “President Bush has just been spoiled dealing with the Republican-controlled Congress before. I take strong offense at the president’s comments that somehow we’re less safe because the Protect America Act expired.” [Politico, 2/22/2008]
Republicans Refuse to Discuss Legislation - Democratic staffers in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees meet today to discuss how to iron out difference between the two chambers’ version of the proposed extension of the PAA; Republican aides refuse to attend. [Associated Press, 2/23/2008] Democrats also charge that, contrary to administration claims of wanting to work with Congress to pass an acceptable update to the law, the White House has refused to supply lawmakers with documents they have requested pertaining to the extension. [Politico, 2/22/2008]

Entity Tags: Mike McConnell, Protect America Act, House Intelligence Committee, Michael Mukasey, Bush administration (43), Silvestre Reyes, John D. Rockefeller

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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