Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and law enforcement officials from four other states have asked the U.S. Senate to reject retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that let the federal government snoop on private telephone calls without warrants.
Blumenthal, with the Vermont, Maine and New Jersey attorneys general and the Missouri public safety commissioner, submitted testimony last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging it to reject immunity.
Blumenthal argued that granting immunity would short-circuit pending litigation seeking to allow Connecticut and other states to investigate whether telecommunications companies broke state privacy laws prohibiting release of caller information without warrants. Blumenthal and his fellow law enforcement officials went to court when the federal government moved to block state investigations, claiming that they would endanger national security.
An immunity grant also would undermine states' police powers and long-established authority to regulate utilities, Blumenthal said.
"This immunity proposal is overbroad and overreaching -- concealing possible illegal activity and undermining state authority," Blumenthal said. "Immunity will prevent states from seeking the truth: Did telecommunications companies break the law and violate consumer privacy by providing information without warrants? A vote for this immunity provision is a vote against accountability.
"Much is at stake: the right to privacy, the requirement for judicial approval of a warrant, the right of states to enact and enforce their laws. Immunity will deny Connecticut residents those rights by blocking lawful state investigations -- and give the companies secrecy."
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush asked the nation's major telecommunications to allow the federal government to wiretap communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries without warrants.
The president did so in spite of the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which requires warrants from a special court to do so. The FISA court, which can issue warrants retroactively when there is no time for a request, has approved all but a handful of warrant applications since its inception in 1978.
The Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) last year began investigating whether telecommunications companies violated state privacy laws by cooperating with the warrantless wiretapping program. The Bush administration, as it has done in other investigations and lawsuits concerning the program, sought to block the DPUC's investigation by claiming that state secrets would be revealed.
Blumenthal and officials in other states challenged in federal court attempts to halt investigations into violations of their telecommunication privacy laws, noting that their probes would not reveal classified information. Their actions have been consolidated into a single case in U.S. District Court for Northern District of California, which is pending.
If Congress approves immunity, the case will end, making it impossible for states to continue their investigations and find out whether and to what extent telecommunications may have violated state laws and citizens' privacy.
Blumenthal praised U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd for his aggressive stand against the immunity provision. Dodd has placed a "hold" on the legislation -- a parliamentary maneuver allowing a senator to delay action on a bill. Dodd also has pledged to filibuster any bill containing the current immunity provision.