House Grants Telecom Amnesty, Expands Spying Powers
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives quickly passed a bill Friday that will expand the government’s ability to install blanket wiretaps inside the United States. It will also put an end to the lawsuits filed against the nation’s telecoms for helping the government spy on Americans without getting the necessary court orders.
The vote hands a significant victory to the White House, a few months after House Democrats forced a high-stakes showdown on the same issue in February.
The 293-129 vote came just 24 hours after the compromise bill was released on Thursday. Only one Republican voted against the bill, while Democrats split nearly evenly.
Speaking on behalf of the deal prior to the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended her support, saying that a bill was necessary and that the measure rightly expanded both intelligence-gathering powers and oversight.
"We took an oath to defend the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic," Pelosi said. "Good intelligence is necessary for us to know the plans of the terrorists, so we can’t not have a bill."
Pelosi said she did not like the amnesty provision, saying the telecoms "come out of this with a taint." But Pelosi added that the bill’s required inspector-general report was more likely to "learn the truth about the president’s surveillance program" than the lawsuits would have.
The bill allows the National Security Agency to order phone companies, ISPs and online service providers to turn over all communications that have one foreigner as a party to the conversation. If any Americans are party to the conversation, the government is supposed to mask their names, but these procedures to minimize privacy-invasion are easily overridden. The longstanding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required specific court orders to wiretap phone and internet lines inside the United States, but did not regulate spying conducted on non-U.S. soil.
Under the so-called FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the government would need a court order to wiretap an American overseas, regardless of where the tap was. Under the current regime, targeted taps aimed at Americans overseas requires the sign-off of the attorney general.
The nation’s telecoms will soon be freed from some 40 lawsuits accusing them of eavesdropping illegally, if the bill is passed into law as expected. The legality of the retroactive amnesty isn’t clear, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation will likely challenge the provision on constitutional grounds.
President Bush urged quick passage of the bill Friday morning, citing support of the bill (.pdf) by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
The White House began pushing for expanded powers last summer, after a secret spying court repeatedly struck down the administration’s attempt to use broad, nonspecific orders to conduct wiretaps inside the United States. Those rulings came just months after Bush bowed to political pressure and allowed judges to rule on his secret, five-year warrantless wiretapping program. Bush maintains, however, that he has the legal right to wiretap inside the United States without court approval, as part of his powers as commander in chief.
California Republican Dan Lungren described the measure as the "single most important bill we will vote on this year," because the intelligence gathered could prevent having to send more troops abroad.
More than a handful of House Democrats assailed the bill prior to passage.
California lawmaker Barbara Lee referred to the days of J. Edgar Hoover and concluded, "This bill scares me."
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Washington) slammed retroactive amnesty, asking "Don’t we realize there are some lines we should never cross?"
But the short debate and quick scheduling made it clear that the House leadership was confident the measure would easily pass, thus sparing conservative Democrats from campaign ads in the fall attacking them for not being tough on surveillance.
The Senate could take up the bill as soon as next week.
The bill is HR6304.
File photo: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi