Supreme Court locks in telecom retroactive immunity

Glenn Greenwald reports that the US Supreme Court has declined to hear a lawsuit by the EFF and ACLU that sought to overturn the FISA Re-authorization wherein Congress (including Senator Obama) granted US telecoms companies retroactive immunity for assisting the Bush administration wiretap US citizens without warrant. Greenwald has been writing on this issue since December 2005 when it first broke (as have I, though with less skill) and he has some strong reactions to the decision which are absolutely worth reading. Glenn concludes with tongue firmly in cheeck:

So congratulations are once again in order for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and the other national telecom giants. In a country that imprisons more of its ordinary citizens than any other on the planet by far, and that imposes more unforgiving punishments than any other western nation, our most powerful corporate actors once again find total impunity even for the most serious of lawbreaking.

I can’t say that I’m surprised that the Supreme Court – a consistently radical conservative body – stood on the side of the telecom companies. It was less surprising given that this is an area where bipartisan consensus was effectively that the telecoms should not be punished for helping the Bush administration illegally spy on Americans. The FISA Re-authorization Act was passed after 10 months of liberal opposition, lead by my former boss Senator Chris Dodd. One of the votes for the legislation was Senator Barack Obama, who had the nomination secured at the time of the vote, but during the Democratic primary had promised to filibuster any legislation that contained retroactive immunity. Thus President Obama entered the Oval Office as a firm, documented supporter of retroactive immunity for the telecoms, joined by essentially all of the Republican Party and nearly half of the Democrats in the House and Senate. There are few issues where real bipartisan consensus can be document in both rhetoric and action as the move to protect these telecoms from criminal sanction. The Court’s position, while radical in a true sense, is sadly squarely in line with what the other two branches of government believe. There is no abuse they deem fit to check, there is no extreme they must act to balance.

Seven years after the New York Times revealed a regime of flagrant, systemic violations of a duly-passed law whose efficacy of being implemented in ways that allowed law enforcement to protect our country, the book is essentially closed on any chance for accountability. As we have seen over the last four years regarding Wall Street accountability, there is no desire by either party’s leadership to enforce the law when major corporations are caught breaking it.

Having spent a significant amount of time working to stop and writing in opposition to retroactive immunity for telecoms (just as I’ve now spent a significant amount of time pushing to hold Wall Street banks accountable for their criminal behaviors), it’s incredibly sad for me to see this issue comes to what will almost certainly be its final resolution.

The pursuit of retroactive immunity for flagrant, documented lawlessness by the telecoms makes clear that not only are the most powerful corporations subject to a genuinely different regime than the rest of us, but that when such a regime of protection does not immediately exist, political elites will work tirelessly to create a haven for their financial elite friends and backers. For all the talk of the greatness of our country, our Constitution, and our foundational belief in equality in the eyes of the law, it’s clear that these are nothing more than warm aphorisms with the operational force of a slight breeze so long as the well-being of the powerful is at stake.

As frustrating as this is to see, it’s equally informative. Seeing the alignment between Republicans and Democrats, especially leaders like President Obama, on this issue is telling. While I may not be happy that this is where President Obama stands on this issue, he has been clear and consistent in his position since 2008. For all of those Democrats who fought tooth and nail from 2005 until the passage of retroactive immunity in 2008, I hope that you will remember this issue and this fight. What has happened this week is no less outrageous than the passage of retroactive immunity in July of 2008 and no less outrageous than the implementation of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping programs in the first place. It is a black mark on our country’s reputation for upholding the rule of law and one which we won’t likely remove for a long time.

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