House votes to expand Bush wiretap powers, telecom immunity
Less than 24 hours after introducing a controversial measure to expand President Bush's authority to spy on Americans, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Friday voted to approve the administration- and Republican-supported bill, sending it to the Senate where it will likely be adopted.
Senator Barack Obama defended the new bill as a 'compromise' from last year's Protect America Act.
Civil liberties and privacy advocates forcefully panned the measure, which was crafted behind closed doors in negotiations among moderate Democrats, Republicans, the White House and telecommunications lobbyists.
"It’s Christmas morning at the White House thanks to this vote," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said in a news release. "The House just wrapped up some expensive gifts for the administration and their buddies at the phone companies."
Friday's vote represented the beginning of the end in a legislative battle aimed at reining in the warrantless surveillance program Bush acknowledged instituting after 9/11.
"Immunity for telecom giants that secretly assisted in the NSA's warrantless surveillance undermines the rule of law and the privacy of every American," said Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "Congress should let the courts do their job instead of helping the administration and the phone companies avoid accountability for a half decade of illegal domestic spying. If this legislation passes the Senate and is signed into law, the American people will have lost their last best chance to discover the true scope of the president's wiretapping program and to determine whether or not the law was broken."
EFF is representing plaintiffs in more than 40 lawsuits alleging the telecoms broke the law and violated their customers' privacy by facilitating the warrantless wiretaps.
The House had earlier proved to be a bulwark in the way of the president's attempt to retroactively legalize his conduct and excuse from legal oversight the telecommunications companies that assisted him. That wall fell Friday.
Pressure mounts on Obama to oppose
Now activists are turning their attention to the Senate, and pressure is mounting on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to step up and lead an effort to block the latest FISA bill.
"We look to leaders in the Senate who value the rule of law to stand up and strongly oppose this blanket immunity for telecom lawbreakers," Bankston said, "and in particular urge Senator Barack Obama to lead his party in rejecting this false compromise."
Obama was initially cautious about reacting to the FISA compromise. After RAW STORY and others asked his communications director about the issue Friday, Obama issued a statement indicating he was generally supportive of the deal, calling it a "marked improvement" over a temporary FISA update passed last summer. The Illinois senator did say he would "work ... to remove" a telecom immunity provision.
"It is not all that I would want. But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay," Obama said in the e-mailed statement. "So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives – and the liberty – of the American people."
(Obama's full statement is reprinted below)
The Democratic candidate was criticized earlier this week for endorsing Rep. John Barrow, a pro-immunity Georgia Democrat, who is in the middle of a primary campaign against a progressive State Senator.
When the Senate passed an earlier FISA bill in February, Obama supported amendments to strip immunity from it. He supported a filibuster after that amendment fail, although the Illinois senator did not vote on the final bill itself.
Pelosi, Hoyer lead effort in opposition to majority of Dems
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer shepherded through a surveillance bill opposed by the majority of their caucus.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act update passed 293-129, with support from just 107 Democrats. Opposing the measure were 128 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Timothy Johnson of Illinois.
"Watching the House fall to scare tactics and political maneuvering is especially infuriating given the way it stood up to pressure from the president on this same issue just months ago," Fredrickson said. "In March we thought the House leadership had finally grown a backbone by rejecting the Senate’s FISA bill. Now we know they will not stand up for the Constitution."
Pelosi said the only choice the House had was between the FISA update it considered Friday and a worse version passed by the Senate earlier this year. A FISA update the House approved in March, that did not include immunity and earned praise from civil libertarians, was apparently no longer an option because Democrats decided it could not pass the Senate.
She said she was unsatisfied with the immunity provision, which leaves telecommunications companies "with a taint," but she said the overall bill was acceptable because it improved on the Senate version. The House compromise requires intelligence agencies' Inspectors General to review the warrantless wiretapping program, instead of the independent judicial review that would have come from the lawsuits moving forward.
Acknowledging the controversy in the bill, Pelosi didn't attempt to prevent the defection of a majority of the Democratic caucus. (This, by the way, stands in stark contrast to the way in which Republicans ran the House; they would not even bring a measure to the floor if it did not have majority GOP support.)
"I'm not asking anybody to vote for this bill," Pelosi said at the end of her floor speech. "I just wanted to let you know why I am."
Barack Obama released the following statement on the FISA compromise:
“Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. There is also little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders.
“That is why last year I opposed the so-called Protect America Act, which expanded the surveillance powers of the government without sufficient independent oversight to protect the privacy and civil liberties of innocent Americans. I have also opposed the granting of retroactive immunity to those who were allegedly complicit in acts of illegal spying in the past.
“After months of negotiation, the House today passed a compromise that, while far from perfect, is a marked improvement over last year's Protect America Act.
“Under this compromise legislation, an important tool in the fight against terrorism will continue, but the President's illegal program of warrantless surveillance will be over. It restores FISA and existing criminal wiretap statutes as the exclusive means to conduct surveillance – making it clear that the President cannot circumvent the law and disregard the civil liberties of the American people. It also firmly re-establishes basic judicial oversight over all domestic surveillance in the future. It does, however, grant retroactive immunity, and I will work in the Senate to remove this provision so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses. But this compromise guarantees a thorough review by the Inspectors General of our national security agencies to determine what took place in the past, and ensures that there will be accountability going forward. By demanding oversight and accountability, a grassroots movement of Americans has helped yield a bill that is far better than the Protect America Act.
“It is not all that I would want. But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives – and the liberty – of the American people.”