Bush seeks immunity for telecom firms

The Bush administration wants the power to grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that are slapped with privacy suits for cooperating with the White House’s controversial warrantless eavesdropping programme.The authority would effectively shut down dozens of lawsuits filed against telecommunications companies accused of helping set up the programme.

The vaguely worded proposal would shield any person who allegedly provided information, infrastructure or “any other form of assistance” to the intelligence agencies after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

It covers any classified communications activity intended to protect the country from terrorism.

Republicans say immunity is necessary to protect the companies that responded to legal presidential orders to thwart terrorists in the years after 9/11. Yet some Democrats fear the administration’s proposal would do much more than advertised, potentially protecting anyone who gave broad categories of aid to the government as part of a spy programme that monitors communications.

Because the administration does not want to identify which companies participated in the operations, it is asking Congress to let the attorney-general intervene on behalf of any person or company accused of participating in the surveillance work, whether or not they actually did, two senior justice department officials said.

More than a dozen government officials interviewed for this story spoke on condition they not be identified because sensitive negotiations with Congress are ongoing.

One of the officials said the defendants in suits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union – Verizon and AT&T – would be the key beneficiaries of the proposed legislation.

Both companies are a central part of the US communications grid, running networks that transmit both telephone calls and emails. (AP)