Republicans at least agree on telecom immunity 

One thread in this season’s campaign coverage has focused on the similarities in policy between the Democratic frontrunners in the presidential race. The other side of the aisle, on the other hand, seems torn between the hard-right social and foreign-policy sermons of the ordained minister and the secular pragmatism of the former POW. It’s a tough time for the pachyderm party. A host of issues threatens to split the 30-year-old partnership between religious extremists who would use government to enforce their values through the law, and traditional Republicans, who preached a hands-off federalism for decades before the awkward alliance was soldered in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s election. Intelligent-design curricula, same-sex civil unions, reproductive rights, the border wall, and more strain the alliance between old-line conservativism and the new ideologues on a daily basis.

There is one issue, however, on which the steadily fragmenting Republican party seems united — and it’s readily apparent at the local level: Whoever wins the March 4 Republican Primary contest for U.S. Congressional District 23 between businessman Quico Canseco and County Commissioner Lyle Larson supports immunity for the telecoms that abetted the Bush Administration’s illegal domestic wiretapping program. As we go to press — and you, dear reader, go to the polls — the House has taken up the Senate’s version of FISA reform: rules intended to update the 30-year-old law that governs how and when the government can conduct surveillance on territory under U.S. control.

There are plenty of things to question about the legislation passed in the Senate last month — including whether this modification of the Protect America Act passed last fall is even necessary. But what’s caught the public’s attention is the proposed immunity provision, which would let telecoms, including local giant AT&T, off the hook for complying with a directive from the administration to hand over private communication data.

What was the scope of that directive?

We don’t know yet, but according to whistleblower Mark Klein, AT&T set up an on-site spy room to collect a vast amount of data, including domestic communications, without warrants. `See “AT&T is in da House,” February 20-26.` If you’re an AT&T customer (I am), there’s probably a good chance your data passed through a virtual black-bag operation.

Nonetheless, in a radio interview on KTSA last Thursday in response to a question asked by the Current, Larson insisted that the telecoms had only handed over, or allowed access to, foreign communications.

Of course, we won’t know what really happened if the cases don’t go to court. That’s what trials are for, and it’s odd (although not rare) to find a Republican arguing that the federal government ought to interfere in what is clearly the courts’ business. It’s particularly disappointing in the case of Larson, who would prefer the press focus on his opposition to building toll roads without letting Texans vote on the matter, and who has penned reams of correspondence to Governor Good Hair objecting to the legislature’s failure to use a state highway fund for highways. Where is his sense of responsibility and fair play when it comes to the spycoms?

The cognitive dissonance doesn’t end there, of course. There is the basic issue of invasion of our privacy, which it has become common to argue we must sacrifice for security. These words come not from big-government straw men such as Senator Ted Kennedy, but from the mouth of our very own Canseco. Canseco — whose self-financed campaign claims Faith, Family, and Freedom as its pillars — was honest enough not to insist that the complicit telcoms did nothing wrong, but argued that if they did so, they did it at the behest of their government and shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions.

American history has not been sympathetic to citizens of criminal states — South Africa and Nazi Germany come to mind — who try to hide behind their governments. And while civil lawsuits aren’t always the best response to crimes against the Constitution, I tend to agree with Representative Charlie Gonzalez’s assertion to this paper that liability encourages responsibility — and sends a much-needed sign of support to whistleblowers. But perhaps Canseco feels the long-touted Republican platform of individual responsibility is no longer up to the task of catching terrorists, either.


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