Two months after vowing to roll back broad new wiretapping powers won by the Bush administration, Congressional Democrats appear ready to make concessions that could extend some of the key powers granted to the National Security Agency.
Bush administration officials say they are confident they will win approval of the broadened wiretapping authority that they secured temporarily in August as Congress rushed toward recess, and some Democratic officials admit that they may not come up with the votes to rein in the administration.
As the debate over the N.S.A.’s wiretapping powers begins anew this week, the emerging legislation reflects the political reality confronting the Democrats. While they are willing to oppose the White House on the conduct of the war in Iraq, they remain nervous that they will be labeled as soft on terrorism if they insist on strict curbs on intelligence gathering.
A Democratic bill to be proposed Tuesday in the House would maintain for several years the type of broad, blanket authority for N.S.A. wiretapping that the administration secured in August for just six months. But in an acknowledgment of civil liberties concerns, the measure would also require a more active role by the special foreign intelligence court that oversees the N.S.A.’s interception of foreign-based communications.
A competing proposal in the Senate, still being drafted, may be even closer in line with the administration’s demands, with the possibility of including retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that took part in the N.S.A.’s once-secret program to wiretap without court warrants.
No one is willing to predict with certainty how the issue will play out. But some Congressional officials and others monitoring the debate over the legislation said the final result may not be much different than it was two months ago, despite Democrats’ insistence that they would not let stand the August extension of the N.S.A.’s powers.
“Many members continue to fear that if they don’t support whatever the president asks for, they’ll be perceived as soft on terrorism,” said William Banks, a professor specializing in terrorism and national security law at Syracuse University who has written extensively on federal wiretapping law.
The August bill, known as the Protect America Act, was approved by Congress in the final hours before its summer recess after heated warnings from the Bush administration that legal loopholes in wiretapping coverage had left the country vulnerable to another terrorist attack. The legislation significantly reduced the role of the foreign intelligence court and broadened the N.S.A.’s ability to listen in on foreign-based communications without a court warrant.
“We want the statute made permanent,” Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said today. “We view this as a healthy debate. We also view it as an opportunity to inform Congress and the public that we can use these authorities responsibly. We’re going to go forward and look at any proposals that come forth, but we’ll look at them very carefully to make sure they don’t have any consequences that hamper our abilities to protect the country.”
House Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the interim legislation in August and believed at the time they had been forced into a corner by the Bush administration.
As Congress takes up the new legislation, a senior Democratic aide said House leaders are working hard to make sure the administration does not succeed in pushing through a bill that would make permanent all the powers it secured in August for the N.S.A. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” the aide said. “We have that concern too.”
The bill to be proposed Tuesday by the Democratic leaders of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees would impose more controls over the N.S.A.’s powers, including quarterly audits by the Justice Department’s inspector general. It would also give the foreign intelligence court a role in approving, in advance, “basket” or “umbrella” warrants for bundles of overseas communications, according to a Congressional official.
“We are giving the N.S.A. what it legitimately needs for national security but with far more limitations and protections than are in the Protect America Act,” said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California.
Perhaps most important in the eyes of Democratic supporters, the House bill would not give retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that took part in the N.S.A.’s domestic eavesdropping program — a proposal that had been a top priority of the Bush administration. The August legislation granted the companies immunity for future acts, but not past deeds.
A number of private groups are trying to prove in federal court that the telecommunications companies violated the law by taking part in the program. A former senior Justice Department lawyer, Jack Goldsmith, seemed to bolster their case last week when he told Congress that the program was a “legal mess” and strongly suggested it was illegal.
In the Senate, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, is working with his Republican counterpart, Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, who was one of the main proponents of the August plan, to come up with a compromise wiretapping proposal. Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for Mr. Rockefeller, said that retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies is “under discussion,” but that no final proposal had been developed.
The immunity issue may prove to be the key sticking point between whatever proposals are ultimately passed by the House and the Senate. Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who was among the harshest critics of the legislation passed in August, said he would vigorously oppose any effort to grant retroactive legal protection to telecommunications companies. “There is heavy pressure on the immunity and we should not cave an inch on that,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Nadler said he was worried that the Senate would give too much ground to the administration in its proposal, but he said he was satisfied with the legislation to be proposed Tuesday in the House.
“It is not perfect, but it is a good bill,” he said. “It makes huge improvements in the current law. In some respects it is better than the old FISA law,” referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Civil liberties advocates and others who met with House officials today about the proposed bill agreed that it was an improvement over the August plan, but they were not quite as charitable in their overall assessment.
‘This still authorizes the interception of Americans’ international communications without a warrant in far too many instances and without adequate civil liberties protections,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, who was among the group that met with House officials.
Caroline Frederickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was troubled by the Democrats’ acceptance of broad, blanket warrants for the N.S.A., rather than the individualized warrants traditionally required by the intelligence court.
“The Democratic leadership, philosophically, is with us, but we need to help them realize the political case, which is that Democrats will not be in danger if they don’t reauthorize this Protect America Act,” Ms. Frederickson said. “They’re nervous. There’s a ‘keep the majority’ mentality, which is understandable. But we think they’re putting themselves in more danger by not standing on principle.”
Progressive blogs all around the Internet are once again resembling Marshal Petain and the Vichy regime, calling on readers to get in touch with Democrats in Congress and tell them to support this "compromise" legislation.
We got into this mess because of compromises such as this legislation. To quote Mel Brooks’s Hitler from The Producers, “(All I want is)...little piece of Poland, a little piece of France…” This is NOT the way to deal with these people who are holding our country (and all of the other nations of the world) hostage.
The FISA court, a secret star chamber, is, in itself, unConstitutional. I, an authentic liberal, am not alone in that belief - It’s shared by many legal and Constitutional scholars on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Here is one such scholar, Jonathan Turley, speaking with Keith Olbermann when this legislation originally went through in August, 2007:
Any legislation that cedes authority to FISA court (as this legislation would do), legitimizes it. The longer that it exists without its Constitutionality being challenged, the harder it becomes to get rid of it. Unfortunately, we’re coming up to FISA’s 30th birthday, and its creation was a bad response to criminal activities by the same group of people in power in our government today.
There really is no reason, none, to have a clandestine judicial institution operating in the shadows, out of the view and oversight of anybody, unless it is to hijack the American government and use it for the express wishes of an elite few (the Corporate class).
We need to address the root causes that are creating people who commit the kinds of crimes that the FISA Court was created to deal with. Once sunlight shines on what the FISA Court (and the Bush administration) keep secret, the American people can see how their money and military have been misused around the world: To make very few filthy rich and powerful, and millions of others sick, dead and enslaved.
There should be no compromising, which is what this bill is. The Patriot Act needs to be overturned, the FISA Court needs to be shut down, Congress needs to find the Bush administration in inherent contempt, and Democrats need to rediscover America by sticking to the instruments for democracy and individual rights that the founders left for us.
I urge you to call your elected representatives in the House and Senate now and tell them to stand firm and deliver on the promise they made after they were lied to and pressured by the Bush administration in August to hastily pass S. 1927 (the 'Protect America Act'). You can direct dial toll-free through to the Capitol switchboard any of these numbers:
1 (800) 828 - 0498
1 (800) 459 - 1887
1 (800) 614 - 2803
1 (866) 340 - 9281
1 (866) 338 - 1015
1 (877) 851 - 6437