FBI head: Give telcos immunity

Nick Julian

At the heart of President Bush’s plea to give telecommunications companies legal immunity is the contention that these companies were merely being patriotic corporate citizens when they facilitated the warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

FBI Director Robert Mueller undercut that argument Wednesday, telling Congress that the ‘good faith’ argument should have nothing to do with whether or not they are let off the hook in dozens of pending court cases.

“I would focus more on the downsides, substantial downsides, of not providing retroactive immunity as being the principal rational of the legislation, providing immunity,” Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mueller insisted that good faith of the companies was “important” but said he was unsure “where it fit into the calculus” behind trying to give companies legal immunity.

President Bush has previously said it was unfair the companies were being “sued for billions of dollars,” and Mueller’s testimony further clarifies the financial motive behind the companies’ push to be let off the hook. He did not elaborate on the “substantial downsides” that would come from a judicial review of the companies actions.

It wouldn’t be the first time the phone companies’ financial situation overlapped with US law enforcement and intelligence needs. At least one foreign intelligence wiretap was disconnected by a telephone carrier when the FBI failed to pay its bills, as the Associated Press reported earlier this year.

Mueller acknowledged the FBI had discovered “a line going down for a matter of days” because of an unpaid bill, but he said the investigation of which that wiretap was a part was not adversely affected.

Won’t rule out waterboarding American in ticking-bomb scenario

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse probed Mueller on whether there would be a scenario in which the FBI would use waterboarding during an interrogation. The Rhode Island Democrat laid out a hypothetical situation in which the FBI had captured Timothy McVeigh just after the Oklahmoa City bombing and believed he had information on another bomb that was set to explode within an hour.

“Do you waterboard Timothy McVeigh?” Whitehouse asked.

Mueller demurred, saying he would “prefer not to answer hypotheticals,” although he acknowledged under further questioning that such a ticking time-bomb scenario could happen today.

“I would not know how I would respond,” Mueller said.