Kudos to today’s St. Louis Dispatch, which is doing its bit to raise awareness of the FISA dispute. It offers two opposing editorial viewpoints from, on the Bush/Telco side, Missouri’s contributions to the rightwing zeitgeist, Congressmen Kit Bond and Roy Blunt (here) and, from the new, rational American center, Senator Russ Feingold (here).
Noting that compromise is difficult, Bond and Blunt (sounds like a vaudeville duo) laud this bill as a model of bi-partisan cooperation, stating that:
Instead of the usual bickering, back-biting and finger-pointing that has characterized much of this Congress, we both sat down at a table with a small group of Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.
Of course, there was a reason that the group was small and consisted only of Democrats whose arms might be most easily twisted. There is a reason that there was a concerted effort to run it through the House and then the Senate without publicity or meaningful debate. It is because, as Feingold declares:
Let me respond as clearly as possible: This bill is not a compromise. It is a capitulation.
Bond and Blunt are, predictably, weak on specifics and strong on reassuring generalities. Does the bill permit spying on Americans–why, of course not. The very idea! Its only goal is to protect Americans from the horror that lurks in the dark:
… the only real impact this bill will have on American citizens is that it grants even greater protections than we already had under the current law. Everyone recognizes the importance of the Bill of Rights and the freedoms it protects, but we also remember that our Constitution wasn’t written to protect foreign terrorists in foreign lands whose only mission is to destroy the very freedoms that document guarantees us.
But, didn’t anyone tell Bond/Blunt that saying its so doesn’t make it so? Why don’t they want to tell us just what the bill does and why they believe that our civil liberties are not abridged? Especially since we have Senator Feingold inconveniently, and somewhat more specifically, disagreeing, citing what he considers to be a problematic section of the actual legislation:
Title I of the bill has been sold to us as necessary to ensure that the government can collect communications between persons overseas without a warrant and to ensure that the government can collect the communications of terrorists, including their communications with people in the United States.
But this bill goes much further, authorizing widespread surveillance involving innocent Americans at home and abroad.
Again, citing no specifics, Bond and Blunt assert that:
Since the expiration of a temporary fix in February, the environment our intelligence officials were forced to work in had gradually grown dimmer and more burdensome as new obstacles to the gathering of intelligence were erected.
Evidently, this is because:
The original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act became law in 1978, the same year the original “Superman” movie hit theaters, the Ford Fairmont model was introduced and the Susan B. Anthony dollar entered circulation. Certainly a lot has changed since 1978, and it just doesn’t make sense that our intelligence officers still were operating under a surveillance law written long before cell phones, fiber optic cables and most other forms of modern communication even were invented.
But Senators Bond and Blunt, what beside the Susan B. Anthony dollar, is actually wrong with existing FISA? Does it maybe have something to do with the mechanics of call routing between countries–and wasn’t that problem remedied by the modest legislation proposed by the House (was it last February maybe?). Couldn’t it have been remedied then if Bond, Blunt and pals had just shown the same commitment to updating the legislation as they claim to be doing now? However, there must be some other problem, since as Feingold notes:
Supporters of the bill like to say that we just have to bring FISA up to date with new technology. … And we can do that without sacrificing our ability to collect information that will help protect our national security. This supposed compromise, unfortunately, fails that test.
Oh, but I forgot. Your buddies and big contributors, the telcos, not to mention your guys in the White House, and maybe even some of those enablers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, might be liable for prosecution if you don’t throw in a little retrospective immunity to cover that earlier time when it is just possible that you all decided expediency justified disregarding the law. Seems that the President, who threatened to veto the technology fix noted above if there was no telco immunity, cared for this problem even more than he cared about the “dimmer” intelligence environment (whatever that means).
But not to worry, as Blunt/Bond observe, under their “compromise” legislation there is good reason to expect that:
…a fair-minded judge will find that companies that acted in a responsible manner deserve thanks, not lawsuits.
Feingold actually agrees, at least as far as the no lawsuits part goes, and offers an observation that explains the Bond/Blunt confidence:
Under the terms of this bill, a federal district court would evaluate whether there is substantial evidence that a company received “a written request or directive . . . from the Attorney General or the head of an element of the intelligence community . . . indicating that the activity was authorized by the president and determined to be lawful.”
But we already know that the companies received exactly these materials. So the court will essentially be required to grant immunity.
This immunity provision also will make it that much harder to get to the core issue that I’ve been raising since December 2005, which is that the president ran an illegal program and should be held accountable.
It is true that the limitations of the newspaper commentary format (as well as the oft-expressed common wisdom about the average reader’s attention span) militate against any commentator offering a careful analysis of the issues that surround the FISA debate in such a venue. Nevertheless, one could imagine that Senators Bond and Blunt might have shown slightly more respect for the intelligence of their constituents, and have at least tried to engage us with something other than sweeping, unverified and, probably, unverifiable assertions. At least I know exactly what Feingold objects to, but the reasons why Bond and Blunt believe the legislation is necessary and achieves the rather vague if emotionally resonant goals they posit somehow fails to emerge.
And finally, thank God for Feingold!