Will Bush get Congress' okay for spy law?

By Nicole Colson

THE U.S. Senate looks set to rubberstamp a Bush administration demand that its new spying powers be made permanent.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the government is allowed to participate legally in warrantless wiretapping of foreign terrorist suspects (before, the government was required to present evidence to and obtain warrants from a special court, which almost always granted such requests).

The Bush administration has been pushing to make FISA--which was passed last August as the "Protect America Act," with a six-month expiration period--permanent.

The law is so broadly written, however, that civil liberties experts say it can be read as allowing the government to intercept, without a warrant, every communication into or out of any country (including the U.S., and including to and from U.S. citizens) without requiring that the targeted person be connected to terrorism in any way.

In addition, the law gives unprecedented powers to both the attorney general and director of national intelligence, allowing them the ability to force telecommunications companies to cooperate with government spying operations.

Despite such provisions, Democrats last year claimed as "victory" the passage of the Protect America Act because of the six-month expiration--and they claimed they would fight to limit the FISA law when the time came for permanent authorization.

But now the time has come--and the Democrats have so far done little to protect civil liberties.

In particular, Senate Democrats failed to strip one of the most controversial provisions from the bill--giving phone companies retroactive immunity from civil lawsuits by individuals who claim that their privacy rights were violated. Getting rid of this provision would require only a simple majority of senators, but the Democrats haven't been able to pull that together.

Bush has said he will veto any bill that doesn't include immunity for the telecommunications companies. "The Bush administration is clearly worried that if the telecoms have to defend themselves in court, the truth will come out about how much illegal spying the president actually ordered," Caroline Frederickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union legislative office, told the Austin American Statesman.

Appearing recently on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, Dick Cheney declared, "Those companies helped specifically at our request, and they've done yeoman duty for the country, and this is the so-called terrorist surveillance program...It's a program that's been very well managed. We haven't violated anybody's civil liberties. It's, in fact, a good piece of legislation."

As the liberal Think Progress Web site commented, "In Cheney's mind, breaking the law and engaging in illegal conduct apparently aren't violations of civil liberties."

Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, claimed in a recent article that the Bush administration is pushing the legislation on FISA to make a political point, not because any U.S. operations could be shut down without it.

"For this president, fear is an easier political tactic than compromise," Clarke wrote. "With FISA, he is attempting to rattle Congress into hastily expanding his own executive powers at the expense of civil liberties and constitutional protections."