Douglas fights phone company immunity in federal spying program

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says Congress should not block Vermont’s investigation into whether phone companies improperly participated in a federal spying program.

A bill passed by the Senate would halt a case underway at the Public Service Board.

But Douglas says Congress should be careful about infringing on the state’s right to regulate the companies.

VPR’s John Dillon has more: 

(Dillon) Congress and the White House are deadlocked over the surveillance bill.

The bill re-authorizes an eavesdropping program that allows the government to listen in on communications with terrorist suspects.

But the Vermont Public Service Board wants to know if the phone companies – when they cooperated with the government – improperly released customer records

The legislation halts that investigation and grants the phone companies immunity. Governor Jim Douglas has a problem with that.

(Douglas) As a general rule, I’d like to maintain the state’s prerogative to regulate. And this is an area that’s of real importance to Vermonters. I think Vermonters feel very strongly that we shouldn’t have someone checking their phone records and having access to that kind of personal information. So I hope we can maintain the state’s prerogative.

(Dillon) The immunity issue led to a deadlock over the bill. The Senate version specifically pre-empts the state investigation. But many Democrats in the House oppose giving the companies immunity.

This week, the House went on recess without passing the bill.

President Bush says Congress has failed to give the government a needed tool to hunt down terrorists. Douglas said there’s also a need to protect civil liberties.

(Douglas) This is a country that’s based on personal freedom, one the Bill of Rights, on respect for individuals who are law-abiding citizens. And we have to find a way to accomplish our goals of combating terrorism without infringing on the rights of the people of our country. Sometimes that’s not easy in fashioning legislation, but I think that’s the importance balance that Congress needs to strike.

(Dillon) Vermont and four other states opened their investigations about two years ago. Vermont put the case on hold when the federal government sued, claiming that the states were jeopardizing national security.

The PSB revived the case recently when a judge in California ruled against the government.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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