Leahy, Sanders oppose immunity for phone companies in wiretapping investigation

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(Host) Both of Vermont’s U.S. senators will oppose legislation giving immunity to telephone companies that wiretapped phones without a court order for the Bush Administration.

The legislation could have a direct impact on a case that’s being reviewed by the Vermont Public Service Board.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The Vermont case demonstrates the Catch 22 nature of this issue.

Several customers of Verizon and AT&T are urging the Public Service Board to investigate whether the phone companies released personal records to the federal government, as part of the war on terror, without a court order.

Did the phone companies provide this information? It’s difficult for the board to know because the companies say they can’t discuss the matter because of national security concerns.

Recently, the Senate Intelligence committee gave its approval to legislation that grants full immunity to any phone company that releases information without a court order.

Senator Patrick Leahy says this approach makes no sense at all:

(Leahy) "They won’t tell us what it was they did to break the law but they want us to pass a law saying it’s OK. Whatever they did to break the law is all right but we can’t tell you what it was they did to break the law. That’s Alice in Wonderland and I have no intention of voting for something like that."

(Kinzel) Leahy says he’s not against the use of wiretaps by the federal government as long as a federal judge approves the plan:

(Leahy) "We have provisions where you can wiretap. And of course if we’ve got people overseas who are plotting the destruction of the United States or plotting criminal or terrorist attacks against us we should be able to listen in to them. You’ve got to have a court in there. It’s the only way it keeps all Americans free and safe."

(Kinzel) If Congress gives its approval to the bill, it would effectively kill the PSB investigation.

Senator Bernie Sanders says he opposes the immunity plan because he thinks phone companies that release personal records without a court order should be held legally accountable:

(Sanders) "You have an administration that is the most secretive in American history which has shown gross disrespect for Constitutional rights and which believes essentially that in the name of fighting terrorism it can do anything it wants at any time I don’t understand how we can give immunity to phone companies who are spying on the American people and we don’t even known what they’re doing and furthermore if you give prospective immunity that simply gives them a green light to do anything that they want to do I think that makes zero sense."

(Kinzel) The full Senate is expected to consider this legislation in the next few weeks.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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