Former Reagan aide: FISA update 'does nothing' to reign in Bush's spy powers
Civil libertarians, activists see potential in new bill, but pessimism persists
Although some Democratic lawmakers took credit for introducing a bill that would restore accountability to the Bush administration in its attempts to warrantlessly spy on Americans, civil libertarians said that the small improvements in the surveillance update were offset by substantial problems.
"It really does nothing with regard to trying to restrain the president's unfettered exercise of authority to gather foreign intelligence," Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration official turned Bush critic, said about the Democrats' proposal.
Fein told MSNBC host Keith Olbermann that the president still claims "inherent constitutional power to flout any law that Congress enacts."
On Tuesday, House Democrats introduced legislation to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Their proposal has earned some praise from civil liberties groups for not granting carte blanche immunity to telecommunications companies alleged to have assisted in the warrantless surveillance of Americans. But deep concern remains over a provision that would authorize the government to apply for "blanket warrants" that could allow for massive intercepts of Americans' foreign communications.
"The RESTORE Act contains important privacy protections the administration has unreasonably opposed," Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies and an expert on FISA, said in an e-mailed statement. "However, Fourth Amendment rights and the national security can only be fully protected with individualized warrants."
Martin was using the acronym for the Responsible Surveillance That is Overseen Reviewed and Effective Act, the official name of the proposal from House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Sylvester Reyes (D-TX).
Both committees began marking up the bill today, as civil liberties advocates lobby for more explicit requirements that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have probable cause before examining Americans' intercepted communications.
Bush says 'deficiencies' in new bill need fixing
Meanwhile the Bush administration and telecommunications lobbyists will push for companies to be spared from litigation or prosecution for assisting the warrantless wiretapping program. Indeed, President Bush took to the Rose Garden to call for telecom immunity and he urged Congress to fix "the deficiencies in this bill."
Bush said he and Congress have "no higher responsibility than protecting the American people from enemies who attacked our country and who want to do so again."
Many on the left fear Democrats will again be cowed by harsh rhetoric from Republicans accusing them of being soft on terrorism and capitulate to Bush's demands.
Indeed, Olbermann notes that yesterday's FISA announcement was accompanied by ominous new warnings about al Qaeda trying to sneak into the US -- "You mean they haven't been trying to do that," he asks. The situation is an eerie mirror of similar terror fears released before Congress's last debate over FISA in August, Olbermann said, noting the previous warning was found to be "bogus." The White House said the release timing was just a coincidence.
Already, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has raised the possibility of allowing telecom immunity -- and the Senate is expected to do the same. The question now is whether Democrats will be able to hold out on that provision until the Bush administration agrees to release long-withheld documents on the foundations of his warrantless wiretapping program to Congress, although one civil liberties lawyer following the case told RAW STORY that doesn't seem likely.
Several bloggers who have been actively followed the FISA-update debate urged readers to pressure Congress to strengthen the new bill. They warned against a rehash of the Protect America Act, the temporary law that was rushed through Congress in August.
"We have all the leverage in the expiration of the FISA temporary fix. Bush is horribly unpopular and civil liberties are a core value. And Democrats don't have to pass anything," wrote Matt Stoller on Open Left. "If this goes through, it's an outrage."
At Firedoglake, Christy Hardin Smith also raises the possibility of simply letting the hastily passed August FISA revision expire as scheduled in February.
"Here’s a thought: why bother with the amendment of FISA if the White House, the GOP, the telecoms, and their donor surrogates in Congress are not operating in good faith, above-board negotiations?" Smith asks in a post criticizing Hoyer's comments, which were made before a House leadership meeting with the full Democratic caucus.
"Let the current very bad bill expire and go back to the old FISA rules unless and until the people who are trying so hard to smarm something through start operating in an honest fashion?"
The following video is from MSNBC's Countdown, broadcast on October 9, 2007.