Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cheney to Congress: "Make warrantless wiretapping permanent"

"While EFF appreciates the attempt by Senator Specter to craft a compromise to save the litigation, the bill contains serious flaws that undermine the goal of allowing the courts to decide whether the carriers and the president broke the law when they engaged in over five years of warrantless surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans." --Electronic Frontier Foundation press release, December 5th, 2007.

Washington D.C.
--Today's rare glimpse of the vice president all appears to have begun over a letter written by Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nv.) urging the White House to allow for more time to consider provisions of a bill to extend the government's abilities to wiretap domestically. Reid and others want oversight provisions and more. In an unsurprising move, the ever reclusive Vice President crawled-out of his secret bunker and issued an ultimatum to Congress today demanding that spying on American citizens--as well as foreigners--be made permanent. What the vice president and president want is the addition of a feature in the sunsetting "Protect America Act" (Public Law 110-55), a bill that was rashly passed by the 110th Congress at the end of August of 2007, and against the will of the public.

The White House has vowed to veto any version of the renewed act that doesn't include specific provisions. What does Cheney want? The Bush administration (Cheney) wants a provision that gives retroactive immunity to the telecoms (all-but-one complied without warrants) over aiding in perhaps thousands of FISA violations under an illegal NSA wiretapping program that failed to obtain warrants from the oversight court. Blah-blah-blah, "9/11," blah-blah-blah, "war on terrorism," and more blah-blah-blahs, were the reasons given to offer law-breaking communications corporations like AT&T, Verizon, Southern Bell (SBC), MCI, and many others (some unknown at this writing). Does haste make waste? My Grandmother always said it did:
"We're reminding Congress that they must act now," Cheney told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The law, which authorizes the administration to eavesdrop on phone calls and see the e-mail to and from suspected terrorists, expires on Feb. 1. Congress is bickering over terms of its extension. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans blocked an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to extend the stopgap Protect America Act without expanding it, raising stakes for an expected showdown in the Senate later this week on a new version of the law. (AP, 01.23.2008)
And so, we've established that Richard Cheney didn't have such a great Grandma and that it actually does appear that Democrats in the Senate are trying to kill the Protect America Act (or make it reasonable). Sunsetting the PAA would be the traditionally American thing to do when a law threatens the liberties of its citizens and so clearly violates the Constitution of the United States, but Congress appears to be taking-its-time. This is acceptable. At least the Democrats are finally beginning to understand what a threat this all poses to them and the rest of us. Yet, somehow, Cheney seems to think he can operate without any mandate--he should, he's been doing so for almost eight-years now.

The 2008 elections loom large on the horizon. Is Senator Reid just trying to give Democratic incumbents the appearance of an opposition party, or is this a real shift from their timid and co-conspiratorial behavior from 2000-on? Nonetheless, the vice president's speech is being heavily-hyped by our corporate media in an attempt to drown-out all other voices on the issue, just as they did to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

As usual, Cheney's speech was made on unconsecrated ground, where nobody with any sense would laugh or balk at the vice president's statements today: the Heritage Foundation, where expressing common sense and reason are career-liabilities. None of this matters, action speaks louder than words. Congress is likely to capitulate on this issue unless we nearly break-their-hands forcing them to let the Protect America Act sunset and die after February 1st, 2008. Will they, or won't they? Regardless of the desire to scratch the immunity provision on-the-part of the Democratic majority, they still want to extend the program of spying on Americans, just with oversight by Congress.

But is the threat that bad, is it real? How could you even prove it was until there was an attack? It's all about instilling fear, and most incumbents are thinking on the same level as the White House: milk the war on terrorism for political-points. In-addition, the public isn't taking Congress or the White House at their word as they did in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, which a simple glance at the polls has made clear since as early as late-2004 (about the time that the NYT discovered the warrantless surveillance programs).

Economic woes are only going to exacerbate the dislike for incumbents, especially if they don't start delivering broad-based reforms. The next sweeping-out of Congress could very well mean an end to this political generation and the rise of a new one. Several interconnected DC-scandals could finish the job. The Democrats understand this dynamic of the mandate better than the GOP, and the pressures must be immense at this writing. Preserving Democratic-gains made from the 2006 midterms will require giving the public something, and something will have to go.

On this note, Senator Harry Reid seems to be leading-the-charge against the immunity provisions, so we must assume that it's becoming a mainstream issue within the Senate itself. The reality is that it's been senators like Russell Feingold (D-Wi.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Christopher Dodd (D-Ct.), who have been keeping this issue alive. Other than Arlen Specter, there have been no progressive voices coming from GOP incumbents on this issue. Surely, civil libertarians of all-stripes are pelting Congress with angry e-mails, phone calls, and letters as this is being written. If they aren't, they'd better start doing it immediately, criminals cannot reform themselves. For that matter, they cannot be trusted to investigate or arrest themselves. Going widely unreported by the mainstream press are the actions by Sen. Christopher Dodd who is threatening once again to filibuster the bill in the Senate. What are his chances of succeeding? Not bad:

Efforts to pass the Senate FISA bill stalled in December when Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) pledged to filibuster any measure that provided phone companies with immunity. Reid pulled the bill from the floor so the Senate could finish its other work. Dodd on Wednesday again said that he would work to defeat any efforts that included such protections. “I’m just not going to give them a free pass,” Dodd said. Before filibustering, he said he would support an amendment that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to offer that would strengthen the FISA court and does not include immunity for the carriers. Leahy’s amendment is based on the bill passed by the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. He would not say on Wednesday whether he would support a filibuster by Dodd. (theHill.com, 01.23.2008)
If the Democratic Party wishes to retain the Congress after this next election cycle, they must stand firm on this issue and block any attempts by the GOP to force passage of this legislation. As Republicans aren't in the majority, it will be the fault of the Democratic one if this legislation is renewed in a form acceptable to the White House. The rule of law has been thwarted long enough by the GOP and her operatives within the State. Predictably, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is calling for a 'compromise' that replaces the telecom carriers as the defendant in all of the telecom lawsuits (nearly all alleging unlawful and unconstitutional violations of privacy) with the government. Ask any honest former-prosecutor if this is acceptable (meaning, 'not Arlen Specter, Rudolf Giuliani or Thomas DiBagio').

Retroactive immunity is like letting the primary accomplices to a major crime off-the-hook so that they can commit the same crimes again-and-again for a future administration, presumably Republican. Granting immunity will absolve this administration and her allies of an unknown number of high crimes, possibly even treason, and it will create dangerous precedents. It should be clear to anyone that Sen. Specter is acting-on-behalf of his party, doing his best to protect the GOP from a long-delayed justice. This is un-American in every respect.

Are Senator Reid and others in Congress starting to listen to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)? EFF's contention back on December 5th, 2007 was that Congress shouldn't rush things--exactly the opposite of what the White House is calling for. This mess has been ongoing since December of 2005 when the existence of the NSA's warrantless surveillance program was revealed in The New York Times. They had been sitting on it for a year. We can wait to pass this bill until it resembles something Americans can be proud of.

'NSA Class Actions': http://www.eff.org/cases/att

'EFF Calls on Senate Judiciary Committee and Full Senate to Take More Time and Not Let Telephone Companies Off the Hook: http://www.eff.org/press/archives/2007/12/05

The Hill (yes, the Hill) on the wiretapping battle, 01.24.2008: http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/battle-over-wiretapping-is-heating-up-on-the-hill-2008-01-24.html

The sound of our liberties dying, 01.23.2008 (AP): http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5jRICMUBI8QvePywA5BLklcJJApcAD8UBQAT80