Will the Democrats sell out America on FISA spy bill vote again?

By Martin Bosworth

If Ellen Nakashima’s article in yesterday’s Washington Post is to be believed, the upcoming reassessment of the new FISA law is going to be even worse than what was originally passed:

House Democrats plan to introduce a bill this week that would let a secret court issue one-year “umbrella” warrants to allow the government to intercept e-mails and phone calls of foreign targets and would not require that surveillance of each person be approved individually… The bill would require the Justice Department inspector general to audit the use of the umbrella warrant and issue quarterly reports to a special FISA court and to Congress, according to congressional aides involved in drafting the legislation. It would clarify that no court order is required for intercepting communications between people overseas that are routed through the United States. It would specify that the collections of e-mails and phone calls could come only from communications service providers — as opposed to hospitals, libraries or advocacy groups. And it would require a court order when the government is seeking communications of a person inside the United States, but only if that person is the target.

In other words, under this proposed new law, government agents would have a full year’s worth of time to investigate someone without renewing the warrant, could apply for warrants in bulk, and would have carte blanche to snoop ISPs to get data on a “target.” But all this is fine, because the selfsame government will be auditing the process and will inform Congress once every three months.

How is this better, exactly?

The new FISA legislation was originally supposed to be unveiled last week, but the House’s progressive Democratic caucus rebelled and demanded more stringent oversight of the new laws, not to mention staking out opposition to granting the telecommunications companies that participated in the spy program blanket immunity–which is apparently a top priority in the Senate. The Next Hurrah’s Marcy Wheeler has an extremely thorough analysis of what’s at stake with this new bill (which I found courtesy of Matt Stoller at OpenLeft). But I want to return to the Post article, especially the last paragraph or two, for a particular point:

Michael Sussmann, a partner at Perkins Coie in Washington who represents communications providers, said carriers that are alleged to have participated in the government’s warrantless surveillance program want immunity to halt pending cases, while those who did not are either agnostic or do not want their competitors to get a free pass. “It’s a tough call,” he said. “If they were breaking the law, it was not out of any greed — there was no remuneration or benefit to their business. It was from a sense of patriotism and interest in protecting against terrorist attack.”

Simply put, this is bullshit. The oldest and biggest telecoms, AT&T and Verizon, have enjoyed cozy relationships with government for a long time, and the Bush administration in particular. (Consider the story of Verizon’s general counsel William Barr, and his views on FISA, for example.) Why else do you think the Justice Department went out of its way to write a bizarre telecom love letter opposing net neutrality?

These companies know they broke the law, and expect the government to either shield them from the consequences, or use taxpayer dollars to foot the bill. Imagine that–the government will spend our own money to block attempts from we, the people, to seek redress for its own lawbreaking. The mind boggles, as I often say.

I have no idea what Reyes and Conyers think they’re trying to accomplish by extending the reach of the government into our private lives, nor what the Senate hopes to achieve by immunizing lawbreaking companies from the consequences of their actions as a truly grotesque form of political patronage. What I do know is that we have to do everything we can to stop this push before it’s too late–and we’re not only up against the collective might of the incumbent Bush regime, and the considerable political clout of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, but also a Congress full of sycophants so keen on enabling the rule of the Decider that the Vichy government itself would’ve been pushed to rebel at this point.

5 replies »

  1. We’re also up against a public that, for the most part, doesn’t give a damn that its civil liberties are being curtailed, at least in this area.

    Few of us have ever seen anyone we know hauled away. Until we do, we’re silent about FISA, which is way too legalistic for 99% of us anyway.

    Thanks are due you, Martin, for following this issue and making it clear to us.