Senate Vote Ends Mainers' Privacy Complaint Against Verizon

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
July 9, 2008 12:00 am

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Senators Collins and Snowe Side With Bush Against Fourth Amendment


PORTLAND – The Maine Civil Liberties Union deplored the actions of Maine’s two Senators who voted today for an Administration-backed bill that vastly expands the federal government’s power to spy on Americans without a warrant. The bill also ends Mainers’ attempts to discover if Verizon illegally participated in the government’s domestic spying program.

H.R. 6304, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 passed the Senate today by a vote of 69 to 28. Earlier, the House had endorsed it on a 293-129 margin, with Congressmen Tom Allen and Michael Michaud opposed.

“Today Senator Collins and Snowe voted to eliminate the Fourth Amendment right to privacy for Americans’ telephone and Internet communications,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “We are deeply disappointed that our two Senators voted to cover up past surveillance abuses and give a blank check to the President for future spying.”

The bill, the bi-partisan offspring of a backroom bargain, weakens the civil liberties protections that existed under the FISA Court, created in 1978 after the abuses of Watergate and the Nixon era. That court, under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, provided a mechanism for court review of government requests for surveillance of Americans for purposes of intelligence gathering. It was originally passed to allow the government to collect foreign intelligence information involving American communications with “agents of foreign powers.” This new bill removes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s authority to meaningful review surveillance orders, by allowing the government to conduct surveillance without specifying to the court who, what, or where the wiretapping will take place. The bill legalizes mass, untargeted and warrantless spying on Americans’ international phone calls and emails.

Maine civil liberties advocates are also troubled by the fact that the bill shields the phone companies from liability for complicity in the previously illegal government spy program. The bill explicitly prohibits any state investigation of actions by phone companies in providing customer information to the government.

That specific provision appears to end the effort by a group of Mainers who filed a complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission in 2006 seeking to learn if Verizon had given their information to the government without a proper court order. The federal government sued to stop that complaint, and the case was pending in a California courtroom.

“This terrible legislation has stymied the civic-minded efforts of a group of Mainers who simply wanted to know if their phone company had turned over their private information in violation of the law,” said Bellows. “Mainers will never know if we were spied upon by the Bush administration, nor do we have any comfort in knowing that our conversations will not be monitored by future Administrations.”

Before passing the final bill, the Senate rejected three key amendments that would have limited its damage. One of these, the Dodd/Feingold amendment, would have allowed the civil suits against the telephone companies and the Bush Administration to move forward for now. The Dodd/Feingold amendment failed 32 to 66. A second amendment, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and former prosecutor, would have allowed the courts to deny immunity if they found the program to be unconstitutional. That amendment failed 37 to 61. A third amendment, the Bingaman amendment would have put a hold on the lawsuits, and delayed immunity until Congress received a report on the warrantless surveillance program by the Inspectors General for agencies involved in the program. That amendment failed on a vote from 42 to 56. The Maine Senators voted against all three amendments.

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