It’s tough to keep track of how many times Congress has caved in to the Bush administration’s fear mongering over the past eight years. Still, this past week’s craven performance by the Senate represents a new low.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a measure that would broaden the government’s domestic surveillance programs. Significantly, the legislation also gives the nation’s telecommunications industries retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution for their role in President Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program.
The Senate vote is yet another blow to American civil liberties that have been repeatedly sacrificed in the name of national security. Equally important, the lopsided vote reveals how thoroughly the financial interests of the telecommunications industries trump the rule of law, not to mention the privacy rights of the American people.
In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration mounted a secret and illegal surveillance program with the help of the nation’s telecommunications companies. When details about the program became public in 2005, the White House, the Justice Department and the telephone companies, among others, faced charges that they had violated federal privacy laws.
Specifically, the program circumvented any number of restrictions on government wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance outlined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. Designed to provide safeguards against flagrant violations of privacy while ensuring the government’s ability to collect intelligence on foreign nationals and governments, FISA established a special court that would enable law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants for conducting electronic eavesdropping.
According to the Bush Administration, however, FISA regulations hampered intelligence gathering for its “war on terror” and decided to bypass the FISA court all together. The administration’s claims are rather suspect however. As the Washington Post reported, the FISA court has rarely denied investigators’ requests for permission to intercept foreign-to-foreign communication that is routed through U.S.-based telecommunications networks.
Nevertheless, with a few notable exceptions, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly acquiesced to the administration’s demands for ever more invasive surveillance techniques. Indeed, in their hurry to complete a bill prior to the summer recess, Congress passed the Protecting America Act that extended the domestic surveillance program for six months and may have given the Bush Administration even broader powers than it had sought. This past week’s vote in the Senate is but one more instance of this disturbing trend.
Fortunately, the majority of House Democrats appear less enthusiastic about all of this than their Senate colleagues. Last November, the House passed a bill that does not grant immunity to the telecommunications industry for spying on Americans without court permission. With the Protecting America Act scheduled to expire on Feb. 15, Congress will have its work cut out for it trying to reconcile the House and Senate bills.
In the meantime, President Bush has made it clear that he is no longer content with temporary extensions of his domestic surveillance program. On Wednesday, Bush vowed to veto any bill that fails to immunize the telecommunications industry against criminal prosecution for violations of the nation’s wiretapping and privacy laws.
This critical debate over the need to balance national security interests with the desire to preserve civil liberties takes place against a backdrop of the telecom industry’s long history of corporate lobbying, influence peddling and exorbitant (and non-partisan) campaign contributions. Small wonder that so many politicians are eager to do the bidding of the powerful telecommunications industry.
The cozy relationship between the telecom giants and this country’s political class has enormous political, economic and legal implications. As former presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), argued on the Senate floor last Monday night, granting immunity to the telecommunications industry would set a troubling precedent: some corporations “are literally too rich to sue.”
Indeed. According to the Associated Press, approximately 40 lawsuits have been filed against the likes of AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint Nextel, alleging illegal wiretapping and invasion of privacy. But if the president, and not a few members of Congress have their way, the telecom’s legal problems would go away. Just in time for the telecommunication giants to launch a massive public relations campaign against net neutrality regulations that ensure non-discriminatory access to the Internet communication.
Kevin Howley is Associate Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at .