WASHINGTON, June 25 - Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke out today against legislation that would overhaul the government's wiretapping powers and grant legal immunity to telephone companies that took part in President Bush's eavesdropping program without warrants.
"Every American understands that we have got to do every single thing we can to protect the American people from terrorist attacks. There is no debate about that. Some of us believe, however, that we can be successful in doing that while we uphold the rule of law, while we uphold the Constitution of this country, which has made us the envy of the world," Sanders said.
"With strong law enforcement, with a strong and effective judiciary, with Congress working diligently, we can be vigorous and successful in protecting the American people against terrorism and we can do it in a way that does not undermine the constitutional rights which people have fought for hundreds of years to protect," the senator added in a floor statement.
The Senate was debating a House-passed bill that also would give telephone companies immunity from about 40 pending lawsuits over their role in a Bush administration surveillance program instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Sanders and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy cosponsored an amendment to strike provisions in the bill that give retroactive immunity to the telecom companies. Sanders voiced concern about the precedent that would be created by granting immunity to companies that turned over records at the request of the White House.
"If we grant them retroactive immunity, what it really says to future presidents is, ‘I am the law because I'm the president and I will tell you what you can do and because I tell you what to do or ask you what to do that is, by definition, legal.'
"That is a very bad precedent," Sanders continued. "The president is not the law. The law is the law. The Constitution is the law. I don't want to set a precedent by which any president can tell any company or any individual, you go out and do it, don't worry about it, no problem at all. That is not what this country is about."
In Vermont, the Public Service Board is looking into whether Verizon Vermont and AT&T gave the National Security Agency access to Vermont residents' phone records as part of a surveillance program. A federal judge in California last year refused to dismiss legal requests by Vermont and four other states for information on the surveillance program.