For six years after the terror attacks of September 11th, the government eavesdropped on telephone and email communications within the United States without regard to the protections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That act was passed in 1978 in response to the abuses of the Nixon administration. The post 9/11 eavesdropping led to some 40 lawsuits, including one against AT&T in San Francisco.
The case against AT&T surfaced after a former company technician came forward with documents showing how telephone and computer email cables were being routed into a locked room in the company's Folsom Street office.
"They show that there was spying going on, that the government had installed equipment in AT&T's network to do that," says Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician.
AT&T didn't deny the claim directly, but said they wouldn't have done it without legal authorization.
Friday, as Walnut Creek Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher presided over the House, representatives voted overwhelmingly to grant immunity to the telecoms if the companies can show they were acting under orders from the president.
"I do not believe that the pending lawsuits would have achieved what we would have liked them to do," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi says an inspector general's report will get to the truth of what happened. However, a senior staff attorney for the watchdog group that was suing AT&T says the Democratic lawmakers, including Pelosi, gave in to political pressure.
"I'd say the House fell down on the job today and caved to White House fear mongering about terrorist threats and supposed intelligence gaffs," says Kevin Bankston with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Whistleblower Mark Klein compared the "I was just following orders" defense to Nazi war criminals.
"If they can show that they were following orders then they get off, that's the Nuremburg defense and it's outrageous," says Klein.
Nancy Pelosi, Ellen Tauscher and Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton voted for the bill. Every other Bay Area member of Congress voted against it. The Senate has passed a version that gives the telecoms even more immunity. The House now sends its version to the Senate where it faces an uncertain reception.