Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Wiretapping bill vote far from a done deal

FISA vote pushed back again:

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Wednesday the House will not take up an electronic surveillance measure this week, further delaying any decisions on the controversial measure.

Hoyer said in his weekly press conference that he hoped to wrap up work on an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; “towards the end of this week or the beginning of next week.”

However, the majority leader acknowledged that there were “still disagreements” within the Democratic caucus over the issue of granting immunity to telecom companies who aided the government in the wiretapping program.

[snip]

Although Democratic leaders insist they are working feverishly to iron out their differences, one House member—speaking on the condition of anonymity—suggested it could be a long time, if ever, before the bill was brought for a vote.

“A lot of people think the politics of doing nothing on this issue are very good for both sides of the political spectrum,” they said.

I can see why some have been pushing to go along with the Senate version of the bill (which would grant retroactive immunity to telecom companies):
President Bush's director of national intelligence recently acknowledged that the goal of this legislative effort was to provide amnesty for the telephone companies. If the telecoms receive the "get-out-of-jail-free" card that the administration demands, more than 40 lawsuits charging that the phone companies acted contrary to established federal law by not protecting consumers' privacy will be thrown out of court. We are plaintiffs in one such lawsuit, and Congress should not deny us our day in court. The companies broke the law, and we believe they must be held accountable.

The Bush administration and its acolytes now claim that we must give giant telecoms amnesty for breaking the law, or else those telecoms will no longer cooperate with the government in spying efforts that help protect America. The truth is that telecoms do not need a special deal. These companies have immunity from lawsuits for turning over customer records to the government if they do so in conformity with existing law. But, in this instance, the telephone companies knowingly violated that law. If we give them a free pass this time, won't the telephone companies feel free to violate the laws protecting our privacy in the future?

The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress complain that these lawsuits are simply about money and enriching trial lawyers -- suggesting that the litigation should be stopped because of the potential damages that might be awarded in such lawsuits. This criticism ignores the fact that, according to the rules in the federal court, the only way that we could ensure that a federal judge could continue to explore previous violations if the companies simply changed their participation or the government changed or ended the program was to ask for minimal damages. We are not interested in recovering money for ourselves, nor is our counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. We, however, are committed to assuring that these giant companies are punished for violating the law and thus dissuaded from violating the law in the future.

More important, amnesty not only lets the companies off the hook without answering any questions, it assures that the American people will never learn about the breadth and extent of the lawless program. Some seem to suggest that we should not have our day in court because a select few members of Congress have been able to review documents about the spy program operated by the White House. The judgment of a few Washington insiders is not a substitute for the careful scrutiny of a federal court.

Congress is supposed to act to protect the rights of American citizens, not sacrifice those rights to large corporate entities. The House and Senate should resist the bullying tactics of the Bush White House and ensure that we have our day in court to vindicate our rights and reveal any illegality engaged in by the telecoms. We need to know about the Bush White House's secret program.
I remember a line from an insert in an old Dead Kennedys album that seems appropriate: "What you don't know helps us to hurt you." There are plenty of folks out there who have an awful lot to lose if the telecoms can't be guaranteed immunity.

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