Friday, March 14, 2008


Friday afternoon, by a vote of 213 to 197, the House passed its own version of the Senate Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and it did not include retro-active immunity for the telecoms. The bill also would initiate a yearlong bipartisan panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to investigate the administration's so-called warrantless wiretapping program.

I watched the debate on C-Span. Of the many speeches that were made pro and con, I thought Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the issues clear. First, she commended Mr. Conyers, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Mr. Reyes, chair of the Intelligence Committee, for bringing the legislation to the floor. She said,
They know, as does each and every one of us, that our primary responsibility is to protect the American people. We take an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And in the Preamble, it states that one of our primary responsibilities is to provide for the common defense. We take those responsibilities seriously, and I don’t take seriously any statements by some in this body that any person here is abdicating that responsibility…
As Chairman Conyers and Chairman Reyes have already pointed out in some detail, this legislation will meet our responsibility to protect America while also protecting our precious civil liberties.

The President has said that our legislation will not make America safe. The President is wrong and I think he knows it. He knows that our legislation contains within it the principles that were suggested by the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. McConnell, early on, as to what is needed to protect our people in terms of intelligence.
And then she went on to address the central issue in the President 's objections to in the bill—retroactive immunity for the telecoms who participated in the administration’s warrantless wiretpapping. The administration does not want any judicial review of those activities. As Chairman Conyers and numerous others pointed out their remarks, it is not up to the administration or Congress to determine if laws have been broken; it is the role of the judicial branch.

The bill before us acknowledges that immunity for the companies may already exist under current law and allows that determination to be decided by a judge with due protection for classified information. Not by hundreds of people who really do not have the facts.
Speaker Pelosi went on to talk about why the Administration opposes judicial determination:

Why would the Administration oppose a judicial determination of whether the companies already have immunity? There are at least three explanations:

First, the President knows that it was the Administration’s incompetence in failing to follow the procedures in the statute that prevented immunity from being conveyed – that’s one possibility. They simply didn’t do it right. Second, the Administration’s legal argument that the surveillance requests were lawfully authorized was wrong; or third, public reports that the surveillance activities undertaken by the companies went far beyond anything about which any Member of Congress was notified, as is required by the law.

None of these alternatives is attractive, but they clearly demonstrate why the Administration’s insistence that Congress provide retroactive immunity has never been about national security or about concerns for the companies; it has always been about protecting the Administration.

On NBC’s Nightly News Thursday evening there was a segment on “FBI Privacy Abuses.” After seeing it, I had an even greater reason to suspect the Administration’s intentions. An Inspector General’s report said that the FBI has been improperly collecting personal information on thousands of Americans and taking steps to hide the extent of their actions. In 2006, 50,000 letters were issued for personal information on people, 60% of whom were U.S. citizens. Senator Frank Leahy of Vermont said the obvious, “The people who are supposed to be enforcing the law, ought to obey the law.” But what we have seen repeatedly with this Administration is that it sees itself above the law.

After closing arguments, debate ended and the House voted. This bill will now go back to the Senate.

Because the President has promised to veto this bill if it passes in the Senate, "this vote has no impact at all," said Republican Whip Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. I think Blunt is wrong; I think the vote is an indication that Americans are not convinced by the President’s demands and have legitimately begun to be concerned about their civil liberties.

Today, the House stood up to the President, who to this point has pretty much had his way with Congress. We’ve not seen the end of the struggle yet, but the Administration’s efforts to keep the extent of its illegal wiretapping under wraps has been dealt another blow. Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." I think we saw that vigilance in the House today. Let's stay awake for the next round.

- Milo

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