Late this summer the nation watched in shock as the new Democrat-controlled Congress not only re-authorized President Bush’s domestic spying program, but further expanded it just before they hastily beat it out of town for their summer recess. The excuse offered by Democrats fearful of being tabbed soft on terrorism was that the law would expire in six months, so no permanent damage would be done to our constitutional rights.
This week, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new authorization that, in its current form, won’t expire for six years. Not only does the new bill continue the lying and spying of the disgraced Bush administration, it also kowtows to Bush’s demand for immunity for the telecom companies who knowingly sold confidential customer records to federal investigators.
Trying to untangle the web of apparent deceit, deception, and indefensible disclosure by the phone companies is complex and, in far too many instances, a vicious circle of pointing fingers and feeble excuses. For instance, the telecoms, including Verizon, Qwest, and AT&T, refused to answer questions from the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week about the activities the companies carried out at the request of the federal agencies. According to their spokesmen, the companies can’t legally answer congressional inquiries without breaking the law by divulging “classified information.” Without the cooperation of the phone companies, it may well be impossible for Congress to determine if, in fact, the Bush administration broke numerous laws by illegally authorizing domestic surveillance without warrants.
In this butt-covering deal between the phone companies and the White House, both parties might escape the proper and long-overdue scrutiny by Congress that could and should lead to substantial legal challenges and significant costs if they are found to have violated the laws protecting our fundamental constitutional rights.
Should Bush, for instance, be found guilty of breaking the law in authorizing domestic surveillance activities, he could face impeachment. Meanwhile, the telecoms are already facing billions in lawsuits from angry customers who feel the security of their communications was compromised—and they’d like to know to what extent and be compensated justly.
In pleading its case, AT&T told House committee members that it was “caught in the middle of an oversight dispute between the Congress and the executive relating to government surveillance activities,” and the company faced “years of litigation, at great financial and reputational cost, and is forced to remain mute in the face of extreme allegations, no matter how false.”
Verizon officials testified that they believed the burden of determining the legitimacy of the requests by the federal intelligence agencies should fall on the government, not the telecoms. Hiding behind the shield of national security, the company’s testimony concluded that “such an approach is vital to ensure that providers are able to respond quickly to requests for assistance” and that “placing the onus on the provider to determine whether the government is acting within the scope of its authority would inevitably slow lawful efforts to protect the public.”
But consider this: In Verizon’s case alone, the government made 88,000 such requests in 2006—so-called “lawful efforts to protect the public”—and another 61,000 so far this year. Not only did the FBI request records for far more callers than they earlier claimed, but they asked for complete phone records for everyone the “targets” called. So, if someone called a friend, relative, or business associate and the FBI or National Security Agency decided to investigate, it is highly probable that the phone records of everyone else they contacted had all their phone records examined as well.
So much for our right to privacy. So much for the guarantee of justice and protection from our own government spying on its citizens.
If there’s any comfort whatsoever for the average citizen, it’s that the House appears less likely than the Senate to go along with covering up this national scandal. As reported in the New York Times, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., cut to the chase with the telecoms to find out just what Bush’s federal agencies told them: “While I recognize the unique legal constraints the telecommunications companies face regarding what information they may disclose,” Stupak said, “important questions remain unanswered about how the administration induced or compelled them to participate in the [National Security Administration’s] eavesdropping program.” So far, however, no answers have been forthcoming.
Far worse news comes from the Senate’s version of the surveillance bill, which may face a floor vote as early as next week. It is widely believed by civil rights advocates that the primary reason the Bush administration has deployed its state secrets defense in refusing to testify before Congress while simultaneously pushing to obtain immunity for the telecoms is to suppress telecom lawsuits that would indeed uncover evidence proving the Bush administration violated the laws on government surveillance.
The obvious question is why the Democrats in the Senate would want to go along with the Bush administration in covering up illegal spying on our own citizens. In a recent poll done for the American Civil Liberties Union by the respected Mellman Group, fully 61 percent respondents supported requiring court warrants for government surveillance. In the West, that number jumps to 66 percent and includes support from 74 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents, and even 46 percent of Republicans. Who, then, are the Democrats serving with their shameful bill?
For far too long the Bush administration has been spying and lying as it deconstructs our constitutional rights while hiding behind national security. So far, only Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, has vowed to put a hold on the bill until the telecom immunity provisions are removed. Montanans, who are known for valuing their independence and privacy, should immediately let Senators Baucus and Tester know that we not only want protection from our own government, we want the truth of the Bush administration’s illegal perfidies fully and finally revealed.