Welch critical of Bush plan to protect phone companies from lawsuits

03/12/08 4:50PM By Bob Kinzel

(Host) Congressman Peter Welch is critical of a plan that would protect telephone companies from lawsuits if they allowed federal wiretaps without a proper court order.

The Bush administration says the electronic surveillance was part of the war on terror - and companies shouldn't be penalized for cooperating.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel)

The Bush Administration wants to give these companies retroactive immunity because more than 40 lawsuits have been filed against the companies including a case pending before the Vermont Public Service Board.

Recently, the U.S. Senate gave its approval to legislation that provides the companies with immunity but House Democratic leaders say they oppose the bill.

Congressman Welch thinks this issue is a key statement about privacy rights and the rule of law:

(Welch) "This country for over 200 years has managed to protect our security without shredding our Constitution and we're being tested we're being tested as whether we can do what our forefathers intended us to do and what people in this country who faced serious threats had to do."

Welch says he supports government surveillance activities as long as a special intelligence judge approves them:

(Welch)"I do not trust not just this president but any president to have unilateral authority to decide to listen in on anyone's conversations and read anybody's emails for reasons they independently decide are valid."

Welch thinks the Bush Administration's push for retroactive immunity is really an effort to protect members of the Administration:

(Welch)"Keep in mind some telecommunications companies said no and they got a requirement of judicial warrant and they're all set they have immunity the ones that complied it's really much more about what the president doesn't want us to see that the White House did than anything the companies did."

A new House compromise rejects the concept of retroactive immunity but allows the telephone companies to defend themselves before a judge in a secret session. Welch says he's carefully reviewing this provision.

White House aides say the compromise is unacceptable and that the president will veto the bill if it ever reaches his desk.

For VPR News I'm Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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