Hold the Phone: House Passes FISA Sans Telecom Immunity
After weeks of threats, arguments and a secret session thrown in for good measure, the House on Friday passed a controversial bill to renew the administration’s electronic surveillance program. Unlike the Senate-passed version, however, the lower-chamber’s proposal would not give the phone companies amnesty for crimes they may have committed in cooperating with the program in past years without a judicial order. The House vote was 213 to 197.
House and Senate leaders now must meet to hash out the differences between the two bills. But as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed out this afternoon, even Democrats don’t believe the immunity language is likely to survive the process.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
The White House has said that legal immunity is vital to entice the telecom industry to participate in the program in the future. Roughly 40 lawsuits have been filed against the companies on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and others who argue that the warrantless wiretapping program violates the Fourth Amendment. Despite the threat of those suits, however, all the companies have agreed recently to cooperate in the program.
In the House, the issue has been all partisan all the time, with Republicans arguing that, without the enhanced surveillance authority (including telecom immunity), the nation is in greater danger of terrorist attack. Democrats have countered that the administration has plenty of other spying tools to lean on that don’t infringe on the privacy rights of U.S. residents. While civil rights groups and privacy watchdogs have supported the Democrats, many legal experts say that both sides are guilty of stretching the truth for political gain.
In the wake of Friday’s vote, the partisan rhetoric rumbled right away. House Speaker Nancy (D-Calif.) issued charging that Congress, because only a few members had been given access to classified documents surrounding the wiretapping program, was in no position as a body to decide how the telecoms should be treated for their cooperation in the program.
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.
Republicans, for their part, countered with the argument that Pelosi & Co. are playing political games at a threat to the nation’s peril. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the House vote a “cover vote” allowing lawmakers to escape public scrutiny during the two-week Easter recess, which begins tomorrow.
This House vote represents a ‘cover vote’ which the Democratic leadership believes will allow them to go on their Easter recess claiming to have passed a bill that protects America. But instead, they’ve done great harm to the effort to enact a responsible strengthening of our anti-terror laws during this session of the Congress.
Might it be an election year?