Murmurs of Another Cave?

by dday

I was just about to write a post about how the Democrats were getting some backbone. This week we've had Nancy Pelosi pursuing contempt of Congress citations for Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers strenuously, Democrats in the Senate holding firm on a proposal to reverse bankruptcy laws to protect homeowners subject to foreclosure, and House oversight investigators even forcing John Ashcroft to testify over no-bid contracts awarded to the US Attorney for New Jersey Chris Christie. And in the face of a ridiculous series of attacks by the White House and right-wing groups over FISA, the Democrats appeared to be unafraid.


To break an impasse over legislation overhauling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, House Democratic leaders are considering the option of taking up a Senate-passed FISA bill in stages, congressional sources said today. Under the plan, the House would vote separately on the first title of the bill, which authorizes surveillance activities, and then on the bill's second title, which grants retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided the Bush administration's warrantless electronic surveillance activities. The two would be recombined, assuming passage of both titles. In this way, Democratic leaders believe they can give an out to lawmakers opposed to the retroactive immunity provision. Republican leadership sources said their caucus would back such a plan because not only would it give Democratic leaders the out they need, it would provide a political win for the GOP. It remains to be seen if such a move will placate liberal Democrats who adamantly oppose giving in to the Bush administration on the immunity issue.

House Speaker Pelosi said that Democrats hope to have a solution worked out by March 8. But she also indicated that Democrats want language included in the bill that would clarify that FISA is the exclusive means under which the government can conduct electronic surveillance. The White House and some congressional Republicans have argued that the 2001 authorization of military force to launch the war on terrorism gave Bush the authority to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance. They also say the president has inherent constitutional authority to do what is necessary to protect the country. Senators have battled over whether to include so-called exclusivity language in their FISA bill. In the end, an amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that states FISA is the exclusive means for conducting electronic surveillance failed to win a needed 60 votes in a roll call that split mainly along party lines.

This has all the makings of a trial balloon, being floated to see what the membership and the outside issue groups think. The ACLU is, um, not pleased.

We vehemently oppose the Senate’s Title 1 that allows mass, untargeted surveillance of every communication coming into and going out of the United States . If the House is to take up the measure, we greatly hope that important safeguards are built back in far above and beyond “exclusivity.” There really is no benefit to declaring FISA the exclusive foreign intelligence surveillance law if it allows the AG and DNI to singlehandedly decide when tap innocent Americans on American soil.

This should be really simple. The telecoms knowingly broke the law. They shouldn't be taken off the hook for doing so. And FISA is perfectly fine to protect the country from terrorists while respecting civil liberties. The President is a reviled figure and his bleatings have produced little or no momentum in the public. There's simply no reason to do this.

Peter Sussman, a plaintiff in two of the lawsuits against phone companies, writes in the Sacramento Bee about how this deal would be un-American.

After Saddam Hussein was executed, President Bush reassured the world that the Iraqi dictator received "a fair trial – the kind of justice he denied victims of his brutal regime."

The Bush administration has similarly promoted "the rule of law" and "an independent judiciary" for countries such as Cuba, Burma and Iran.

Yet that same president is pressuring Congress to deny Americans our day in court before an independent judiciary by repealing the rules of law that guarantee the right to sue a private company for illegal infringements on our privacy rights [...]

Before Congress is sucked into this rhetorical swamp, consider that AT&T and other phone companies that buckled to secret administration demands for our records had a legal alternative: They could have insisted that the administration first obtain the court order that they – or their corporate attorneys – knew was necessary. That's what another large phone company apparently did, demonstrating more respect for the rule of law than AT&T apparently has. AT&T would have been legally obligated to respond to a valid warrant, saving "millions of lives" at that "very moment."

Instead, AT&T chose to violate federal and state law.

I and my fellow plaintiffs don't stand to win any money through our lawsuit, much less billions of dollars, but we do hope to assure governmental accountability, to open to public scrutiny the actions of corporations and government that have teamed up to deny citizens the rights guaranteed by law.

Your House member needs a phone call. There is no public constituency demanding that the phone companies get amnesty. The "rule of law," pro-Constitution constituency must rule the day.