The Miami Herald speaks out against the FISA bill.
Passed by a vote of 293-129 in the House, the overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is billed as a ”compromise.” It is nothing of the sort. Lawmakers are caving in on the most significant aspect of the law and practically committing the next president to accept it.
Recall that the administration kept the extent of its warrantless spying program secret for years. Thanks to reports in the news media in late 2005, Americans learned that most of the nation’s telecommunications companies had provided the government with private data beginning shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, without so much as a by-your-leave to the Congress, the courts or the people.
At the time, it was believed that a tribunal known as the FISA court secretly reviewed all requests for intelligence wiretaps — and mostly gave rubber-stamp approval. The secrecy-obsessed administration deemed this too much of a bother, however. It claimed that a 2001 law authorizing force against anyone involved in the Sept. 11 attacks gave the president the power to ignore FISA.
That was bad enough. But when the law came up for renewal the administration went further — insisting on a provision that would immunize the telecommunication companies from lawsuits.
This strikes at the heart of efforts to discover the extent of the lawless wiretapping. The lawsuits would be the only way to offer judicial review of the legality of the program. The overhaul approved by the House would, in effect, give retroactive legal sanction to a program that constitutes one of the most brazen infringements of civil liberties in modern times involving telecommunications.
The Senate should not follow suit. It can extend the current law — minus the immunity — into next year, keeping the current program intact but leaving all options open for a new president who, we hope, will have a more protective view of civil liberties. Under the House bill, the updated version would not expire until 2013. That would extend one of the worst legacies of the Bush administration for another five years, and that’s too long.