Telecom Immunity Battle: A Red Herring?

 Red herring: An argument, given in reply, that does not address the original issue. Critically, a red herring is a deliberate attempt to change the subject or divert the argument.

As I sit and wonder if the vote I cast in NJs presidential primary for Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton – actually registered, I am reminded of a senator whose brief run for president actually stood for something. From the outset, Sen. Chris Dodd had little chance of winning his party’s nomination, but something he said in mid-October 2007, grabbed the attention of frustrated Americans nationwide. Regarding President Bush’s “hold my breath ’til I turn blue” insistence that the U.S. Senate grant immunity to telecom companies, Chris Dodd said “Hell no.” Okay, I just made that up – but I’ve been dreaming of members of Congress rising to the floor one by one declaring proudly “Hell no” when faced with the dangerous and self-serving demands of George W. Bush and his cronies.

Actually, what Dodd said last October was a bit more eloquent. He declared, “While the President may think that it’s right to offer immunity to those who break the law and violate the right to privacy of thousands of law-abiding Americans, I want to assure him it is not a value we have in common and I hope the same can be said of my fellow Democrats in the Senate. For too long we have failed to respect the rule of law and failed to protect our fundamental civil liberties. I will do what I can to see to it that no telecommunications giant that was complicit in this Administration’s assault on the Constitution is given a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
To that, I said “Hell yes.” When the senator threatened a filibuster, I even dropped some green in the bucket to ‘encourage his courage.’ When asked for another contribution so the good senator could continue to carry this message, I put on the brakes – for two reasons. First, I don’t subscribe to a coin-operated style of doing the people’s business. Secondly, while Dodd argued against giving the telecoms a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” he had already pressed one into the palms of both Bush and Cheney when he declared, “Impeachment proceedings suck all of the oxygen out of the room.” Nevertheless, Chris Dodd stayed true to his commitment to fight telecom immunity and for that I am grateful.

The battle wages on in the Senate. When I watch these proceedings I think about how they…well… suck all of the oxygen out of the room. How can I say this about an issue as important as our constitutional right to privacy and one in which I regularly contact my senators? Because, clearly the air is very thin in those rooms. Why is so much time and effort being spent on arguing about immunizing phone companies when enough evidence exists to bring the Bush administration to account for their role in those same crimes? True, the telecoms were greedy and/or spineless players, but in the end they were no more than pawns to the dastardly duo that are the president and vice president.

Still, the American people have a right to recourse and we must continue to demand that the telecoms not be dipped in the same accountability repellant that coat both Bush and Cheney. Clue to Congress: It’s water-soluble. Simply wet them down with Watergate-like impeachment hearings and you will easily strip them of their overreaching powers. Question for Congress: Have you forgotten your history? The second article of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon was for electronic surveillance he claimed was critical to national security.

Some will tell you that granting immunity to the telecoms will destroy our chances to learn what Bush and company were up to with their domestic surveillance. A letter recently addressed to Democracy for America (DFA) members penned by Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com goes like this: “Dear DFA member, Today is a genuine opportunity – the first in a long time – for Senate Democrats to take a meaningful stand against the lawlessness of the Bush administration. If telecom amnesty were granted, it would result in the immediate dismissal of numerous lawsuits against the telecoms, thus extinguishing the only remaining means for discovering what our Government really was doing over the last seven years as it illegally spied on our telephone conversations and emails.”Really? The only remaining means? This coming from an authority on constitutional law?

Here’s an idea. Subpoena the phone companies so they can discuss their role in illegal wiretapping in the confines of an impeachment hearing. You can shed light on their activities and indict the Bush administration all in one shot.DFA has been sending out a lot of emails lately. Democracy for America is a political action committee committed to “rebuilding” the Democratic Party from the bottom up. It is led by Jim Dean, brother of Howard, former presidential hopeful and chair of the DNC. In addition to their usual activity of garnering support for progressive Democratic candidates, DFA has suddenly become a very vocal opponent of telecom immunity.
A recent message from Jim Dean stresses the importance of fighting immunity. Like Glenn Greenwald, Dean tells members “[immunity] means we may never know the full extent of the administration’s illegal domestic spying programs.”That’s funny, because in my circles the administration’s involvement is common knowledge. Perhaps it’s because…They admitted to it! Constitutionally minded people around the country eagerly awaited for Congress to act on this discovery after the New York Times belatedly published the story in December 2005. And act they did – by granting the Bush cabal new and improved powers – temporarily of course…right?

Immediately following the NY Times disclosure, Bush fessed up. In a December 17, 2005 radio address, he explained that yeah, he did it and it was all to protect you and me. Not only that, he explained he had “reauthorized this program more than 30 times since the September the 11th attacks,” and that he would do so “for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups.” Bush claimed that these actions were “consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.” Why? Because as President, he authorized it. Later, we would learn that domestic spying was initiated not as a direct response to the attacks on 9/11, but shortly after Bush was sworn in as President.

Last week on Rush Limbaugh’s show, Dick Cheney confirmed the telecom involvement by stating “retroactive liability protection for the companies that have worked with us and helped us prevent further attacks against the United States.”Yet there never seems to be enough evidence for our United States Congress to take definitive action that involves accountability. For that matter, there are many “progressive” groups that have been unwilling to utter the word impeachment.Jim Dean of DFA has remained virtually silent on the issue of impeachment perhaps following the lead of big bro, Howard, who when asked about impeachment remarked “We don’t play gotcha politics.”

Impeachment is mentioned six times in the Constitution. Which article and section is entitled “Gotcha politics?”Jim Dean though, offers us a solution beyond pressuring our senators. “What can you do?” he asks. “If you have a cell phone from Verizon or AT&T, you can keep on sending them your money and supporting them – and President Bush – in their cover-up. Or you can join DFA Wireless – DFA Wireless is powered by CREDO Mobile and 10% of your monthly charges can be directed to support DFA.”

DFA invited Michael Kieschnick, president of CREDO Mobile to use DFAs list to ask members to “support a company that opposes – rather than enables – the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping.” He too warns that “Retroactive immunity would prevent us from finding out what the Bush administration asked these companies to do and who asked them to act outside of the law.”

CREDO, a division of Working Assets has, over the last 20 years, donated more than $50 million dollars to progressive non-profits including the ACLU and Amnesty International. More recently, they have directed some funds to Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Center for Constitutional Rights – two of my personal favorites. As I sifted through numerous anti-immunity emails from DFA including personal messages from Jim Dean, Glenn Greenwald, Michael Kieschnick and Caroline Frederickson (director ACLU Washington Legislative Office), I realized there was something missing. While all these emails mention telecom giants AT&T and Verizon as privacy offenders, a third, Sprint Nextel is consistently left out of the discussion despite pending litigation.

From a February 5, 2006 USA TODAY article, Leslie Cauley reports that “The National Security Agency has secured the cooperation of large telecommunications companies including AT&T, MCI [now Verizon] and Sprint, in its efforts to eavesdrop without warrant…”Last November, Ellen Nakashimo of the Washington Post wrote, “The immunity provision sought by the White House would wipe out about 40 lawsuits that accuse AT&T, Verizon Communications and Sprint Nextel of invading American’s privacy and constitutional rights by assisting the government in domestic surveillance without a warrant.”

Surprisingly, despite the lack of oxygen in my office as a result of my preoccupation with impeachment, I found myself picking up the phone and dialing CREDO Mobile. Feeling a little light-headed, of course, I asked haltingly “What network powers CREDO Mobile?” A friendly voice chirped, “Sprint, it’s very reliable.”

I learned that CREDO “rents” the service from Sprint. When I commented that CREDO/Working Assets serves then as a middleman with some of the money still ending up in the hands of alleged privacy offender Sprint, I was told I would have to email any other questions, but that I would receive a response within 24 hours. 25…36…40 hours and counting. I’m not holding my breath.

Okay, so CREDO is powered by Sprint. It’s gotta be powered somehow I guess. But, given the nature of the emails from DFA and CREDO with regards to telecom immunity, full disclosure would have been appropriate. Something else to keep in mind should you choose to go this route, while your personal information and phone records will not be going to the NSA without a warrant, your customer information will be going to another federal agency. Remember how 10% of your monthly cell phone charges can go to Democracy for America? Those transactions are considered individual political contributions. As a result, when subscribers sign up for DFA Wireless, their personal information is captured so it can be accurately reported to the Federal Election Commission as a political contribution.

While not-for-profit groups like DFA, the ACLU and MoveOn team up with the for-profit Congress to convince us they want to hold the Bush administration accountable, I have to ask what does accountability look like to these people? While they are all quick to point out the transgressions of the administration, their solution has been to wait them out and hope for better in 2009. Do I want to donate 10% of anything to that cause? Hell no.

Hey Chris, Jim, Glenn, Michael and Caroline, members of Congress: Please, do us all a favor. Stop the distractions. Join us in the call for impeachment. I’ll donate the oxygen masks.

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