I haven’t been following the FISA legislation as closely as others, but it seems to me the whole issue is a damn mess that doesn’t make either party look good.
The Republicans clearly are not interested in actually protecting us from terrorism. Their sole objective is to spin FISA as an issue to bash Democrats. The Carpetbagger explains that Republicans offered silly, redundant amendments as means to insinuate that the Dems aren’t serious about preventing al Qaeda from attacking the U.S.
Got it? The Republicans are less interested in protecting Americans from terrorism than they are in accusing Democrats of not being serious about protecting Americans from terrorism.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a member of the Republican leadership, introduced an amendment to â€œclarifyâ€ that nothing in the bill â€œshall be construed to prohibit the intelligence community from conducting surveillance needed to prevent Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or any other foreign terrorist organizationâ€¦from attacking the United States or any United States person.â€ The amendment lacked any and all substance â€” for the purposes of legislation, Cantorâ€™s measure was a childish little game.
But it was a painful reminder that legislating like a child can sometimes be successful.
Cantorâ€™s shallow amendment was ridiculous for a couple of reasons. First, it was obviously intended to scuttle the legislation. Lawmakers didnâ€™t want to be in a position of voting for an amendment, no matter how ridiculous, that might be construed as â€œweakâ€ on terrorism. But if the amendment passed, procedurally, it would sent the entire bill back to committee and delay the process considerably.
Second, Cantorâ€™s little game was redundant â€” the legislation already included grown-up language that achieved the same goal.
[I]t turns out that the FISA legislation may already accomplish what Cantor said he wanted to accomplish with his amendment â€” that is, it has provisions in it that allow the intelligence community to do whatever surveillance they need in the event of an imminent terror attack.
Hereâ€™s what Dem Rep. Jerrold Nadler had to say in his recent statement announcing his backing of the bill: â€œIt also includes emergency provisions, including the ability to get a warrant after the fact, to ensure that the government will never have to stop listening to a suspected terrorist plotting an attack.â€ [â€¦]
Dem House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has just put out a statement reiterating this point, accusing the GOP of pushing an amendment that is â€œproposing language already provided in the bill.â€ And the Associated Press is equally unequivocal, saying that the bill â€œallows the unfettered surveillance of such groups.â€
In other words, Cantor and the GOP were just being stupid, on purpose. As my friend A.L. put it, â€œThe Republicans might as well have offered an amendment â€˜clarifyingâ€™ that â€˜anyone who votes against this amendment is gay.â€™ Thatâ€™s about the level of maturity weâ€™re talking about here. Itâ€™s the kind of stuff that would embarrass most seven-year-olds.â€
But just to add insult to injury, the Republicans followed up with child-like bravado.
â€œHouse Democrats have pulled the FISA bill,â€ Cantor said. â€œThey are so desperately against allowing our intelligence agencies to fight OBL and AQ, that they pulled the entire bill to prevent a vote.â€
Got that? According to a House Republican leader, Democrats are treasonous, and pulled a surveillance bill in order to protect terrorists.
Weâ€™re dealing with children who are running a major political party in the House of Representatives. Itâ€™s painful to watch, in part because the children think theyâ€™re clever.
Then there’s the surprising headline in today’s Washington Post: “Senate and Bush Agree On Terms of Spying Bill.” Jonathan Weisman and Ellen Nakashima write,
Senate Democrats and Republicans reached agreement with the Bush administration yesterday on the terms of new legislation to control the federal government’s domestic surveillance program, which includes a highly controversial grant of legal immunity to telecommunications companies that have assisted the program, according to congressional sources.
Disclosure of the deal followed a decision by House Democratic leaders to pull a competing version of the measure from the floor because they lacked the votes to prevail over Republican opponents and GOP parliamentary maneuvers.
The collapse marked the first time since Democrats took control of the chamber that a major bill was withdrawn from consideration before a scheduled vote. It was a victory for President Bush, whose aides lobbied heavily against the Democrats’ bill, and an embarrassment for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had pushed for the measure’s passage.
The draft Senate bill has the support of the intelligence committee’s chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), and Bush’s director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell. It will include full immunity for those companies that can demonstrate to a court that they acted pursuant to a legal directive in helping the government with surveillance in the United States.
Such a demonstration, which the bill says could be made in secret, would wipe out a series of pending lawsuits alleging violations of privacy rights by telecommunications companies that provided telephone records, summaries of e-mail traffic and other information to the government after Sept. 11, 2001, without receiving court warrants. Bush had repeatedly threatened to veto any legislation that lacked this provision.
Let’s just describe very factually and dispassionately what has happened here. Congress — led by Senators, such as Jay Rockefeller, who have received huge payments from the telecom industry, and by privatized intelligence pioneer Mike McConnell, former Chairman of the secretive intelligence industry association that has been demanding telecom amnesty — is going to intervene directly in the pending lawsuits against AT&T and other telecoms and declare them the winners on the ground that they did nothing wrong. Because of their vast ties to the telecoms, neither Rockefeller nor McConnell could ever appropriately serve as an actual judge in those lawsuits. …
… The question of whether the telecoms acted in “good faith” in allowing warrantless government spying on their customers is already pending before a court of law. In fact, that is one of the central issues in the current lawsuits — one that AT&T has already lost in a federal court.
Yet that is the issue that Jay Rockefeller and Mike McConnell — operating in secret — are taking away from the courts by passing a law declaring the telecoms to have won.
As usual, Glenn provides a clear assessment of the legal and constitutional issues surrounding FISA and the telecoms; see also “The truth about telecom amnesty.”