The Senate on Thursday continued to debate 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. While many in Congress fell in line with a White House compromise, Senator Bernie Sanders and others were mounting an effort to strip the immunity provision out of the bill. "Every American understands that we have got to do every single thing we can to protect the American people from terrorist attacks," he said. "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."
Sanders and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy cosponsored an amendment with Senators Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold to strike provisions in the bill that would throw out about 40 pending lawsuits against Verizon, AT&T and others over their role in the Bush administration surveillance program instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"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.
To watch the senator's floor speech on this issue, click here.