FISA is Washington short-hand for the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act requires a warrant to intercept telephone calls and e-mail messages between people in the United States and people abroad. It is the law that President Bush decided to ignore after 9/11.
I can understand that in order to keep pace with technology some changes were needed. They were made in a bill that Congress passed last summer. Unfortunately, the President managed to add some provisions that undermine the court’s role in monitoring eavesdropping. Because of those provisions, Congress gave them an expiration date of February 1.
Before the end of the year, the House passed a reasonable bill, making the needed changes, but without further erosion of civil liberties. Tomorrow, the Senate may cave in to White House pressure. The Republicans and a number of Democrats quail before the President’s claim that we will be in increased danger from terrorists if the bill is passed without giving the telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for participating in an illegal activity with the White House. The President says that without immunity the companies won’t cooperate in the future.
This is part of what I don’t understand. These are the wiretaps—we don’t know how many—that the President believes are so important to protect us from terrorists that they didn’t bother to pay the phone bills for many of them. These were the same companies who were so patriotic in cooperating with the government that when the bills weren’t paid, they cut off the government. Am I missing something here?
To the dire warnings from the President about what will happen if a new bill to his liking is not approved by February 1, I ask: “Mr. President, why don’t you do it the old-fashioned way, the constitutional way, and get warrants as the law provides? The law even allows you to do it in emergency situations after the fact.”
There is something more here than the President’s threats about terrorists. The real aim of immunity for the companies is to prevent the full story of the wiretapping, and his administration’s complicity, from being exposed.
Forgive me if I don’t show much patience for the administration’s concern. The lead editorial in today’s New York Times concludes:
Lawmakers and the rest of the nation should bear this in mind: Mr. Bush’s version of this law does not make intelligence-gathering more robust. Opponents like Senators Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy want to spy on Al Qaeda, too. They’re just not willing to do it in a way that undermines the very democracy that the spies, Congress and the president are supposed to be protecting.
How about it? Have I missed something?