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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 20, 2008; 1:01 PM

What kind of a country is it where, when the head of state asks you to do something that may well be illegal, but assures you that he considers it legal, you can't be held accountable for doing it?

Welcome to the new U.S. of A.

Under the surveillance "compromise" that the House of Representatives approved today, telecommunications companies that participated in the government's warrantless surveillance program would get immunity from civil lawsuits as long as they showed that they were told that the program was authorized by President Bush and was determined by his legal team to be lawful.

With Congress having largely abandoned its oversight obligations on this issue, and with little chance of Bush's Justice Department investigating itself, these lawsuits were really the only remaining avenue of accountability -- at least until the next administration.

But the new law would prohibit federal judges from addressing the merits of these suits. Instead, since the government did provide assurances about legality that the companies can easily document, judges would be required to dismiss them.

In a system of laws, a permission slip from the president isn't supposed to supercede duly enacted legislation -- and the Constitution.

So how did Bush get his way with Congress -- again? It was just four months ago that House Democrats defiantly rejected what they called Bush's fear mongering and refused to vote on a surveillance proposal that included telecom immunity. It appeared that Bush's iron hold over Congress on national security had finally been broken.

But, on some issues at least, Congress is apparently still willing to cave to The Man.

Bush Speaks

Bush made brief remarks this morning about the surveillance bill, as well as the no-strings-attached troop funding bill the House passed yesterday. He looked like the proverbial cat that ate the canary.

"My Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General tells me that this is a good bill. It will help our intelligence professionals learn our enemies' plans for new attacks," Bush said.

"It ensures that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will themselves be protected from liability for past or future cooperation with the government."

The Coverage

While some Democratic House leaders were pitching the agreement in general -- and the immunity provisions in particular -- as a compromise, many reporters didn't buy it.


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