The Senate delayed until after the July 4th holiday voting on legislation that would hand the White House sweeping new surveillance powers after two outspoken critics of the measure objected to a provision in the bill that would provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that agreed to tap into telephone lines and monitored emails after 9/11 without a court order.
On Thursday, Democratic Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, critics of the legislation, called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to delay a vote on the bill until July 8. At that time, Feingold and Dodd intend to introduce an amendment to strip telecom immunity from the bill.
“I’m pleased we were able to delay a vote on FISA until after the July 4th holiday instead of having it jammed through,” Feingold said in a statement. “I hope that over the July 4th holiday, Senators will take a closer look at this deeply flawed legislation and understand how it threatens the civil liberties of the American people. It is possible to defend this country from terrorists while also protecting the rights and freedoms that define our nation.”
Last December, Dodd threatened to filibuster an earlier version of the bill forcing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to postpone the vote until after the winter break. But the bill is likely to withstand renewed efforts to remove the immunity provision from the final bill.
Dodd said he hopes he and Feingold can convince their Democratic colleagues to support an amendment to remove the immunity provision when the bill is debated again in two weeks.
“I’m pleased that consideration of the FISA Amendments Act has been delayed until after the 4th of July recess,” Dodd said in a statement.” I urge my colleagues to take this time to listen to their constituents and consider the dangerous precedent that would be set by granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that may have engaged in President Bush’s illegal wiretapping program. When and if FISA does come back to the Senate floor, I will offer my amendment to strip the retroactive immunity provision out of the bill. I implore my colleagues to support the rule of law and join me in voting against retroactive immunity.”
President George W. Bush said he would veto legislation that does not include retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.
The measure would radically alter the 30 year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The legislation was brokered by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer despite an outcry from constitutionalists that the plan gave the President far too much power, including the authority to wiretap for one week before seeking a warrant.
The bill, which attracted the support of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, appeared to be on a fast-track Wednesda and headed toward approval before the Senate adjourned this weekend for a 10 day holiday break.
The Senate withstood an attempt late Wednesday by 15 Democrats to filibuster the legislation. Thirty-two Democrats and 48 Republicans voted in favor of moving forward on the bill, well above the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster.
The House passed the legislation last week. Privacy groups and progressive organizations undertook a massive letter writing campaign immediately after the House approved the bill urging Senate Democrats to oppose the measure.
Last week, Pelosi called the new FISA bill a “compromise” and pointed out that it does require the telecom companies to show a federal district court that they had written presidential instructions to tap phones and e-mails. If the documents are in order, a judge would dismiss the lawsuit.
Feingold said Wednesday that the bill is a “capitulation” and criticized Pelosi’s characterization of the legislation.
“This legislation has been billed as a compromise between Republicans and Democrats,” Feingold, who opposes the measure, said Wednesday in remarks made on the Senate floor. “We are asked to support it because it is a supposedly reasonable accommodation of opposing views. Let me respond as clearly as possible: This bill is not a compromise. It is a capitulation.
“This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal wiretapping program – a program that more than 70 members of this body still know virtually nothing about,” Feingold added. “And this bill will grant the Bush Administration – the same administration that developed and operated this illegal program for more than five years – expansive new authorities to spy on Americans’ international communications.”
In addition to this immunity provision, civil liberties and privacy groups are opposed to the bill because they say it weakens oversight of the surveillance court and extends the time — from 72 hours to one week — during which the administration can conduct wiretaps without seeking a warrant.
The final version of the bill will likely doom 40 lawsuits that are pending against telecom companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, for taking part in the administration’s warrantless surveillance program that the Bush administration justified by citing the 9/11 attacks. Many civil liberties groups believe the surveillance was illegal, violating both the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment.
Democratic senators agreed to a stipulation to the bill in exchange for supporting telecom immunity that calls for the inspectors general of the Pentagon and Justice Department to probe the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
The program was initiated shortly after 9/11 to monitor alleged terrorists telephone and electronic communications in the United States without consulting the special court set up in 1978 to monitor and approve domestic surveillance activities. The New York Times exposed the secret program in December 2005, one year after President Bush and top administration officials urged the paper to withhold publication of the story.
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