The Fear Factor

February 23, 2008 12:00 am

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Playing politics with domestic surveillance bill

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WASHINGTON – Statement of Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office:

“In an attempt to get sweeping powers to wiretap without warrants, Republicans are playing politics with domestic surveillance legislation. The president is saying he does not want the courts to have any say in whether telecommunications companies acted illegally when they turned over private information to the government. As usual, the Bush administration is trying to insulate its activities from public scrutiny, this time by trying to keep the telecommunications providers out of court for illegal actions.

“The ACLU’s plaintiffs are not in it for money; they want the truth to come out. They deserve their day in court against companies that were supposed to keep their information private. Let the courts decide. Have some faith in the U.S. justice system Mr. President. If the companies did not break any laws, why would they need immunity?

“Instead of trying to work on a compromise on what they claim is vital legislation, Republican lawmakers are refusing to even come to the table to do the hard work of negotiation. Instead, Republicans want the House to accept the unconstitutional Intelligence Committee bill passed by the Senate, without change. The ACLU once again commends the House for refusing to yield to administration fear-mongering. This bill, S. 2248, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2007, would grant the administration unfettered access to all communications coming in to or out of the United States without any meaningful court review or finding of wrongdoing. In addition, it would grant complete immunity to companies that cooperated with illegal wiretapping over the last several years.

“Also, in a ploy to get the House to cave in on the immunity issue, the White House agreed this week to show the full House Judiciary Committee legal documents related to its warrantless domestic surveillance program. This agreement to show a few members of Congress some of the documents comes after years of stonewalling.

“The president is claiming that without the Senate intelligence bill American’s lives are in danger, and yet, they threaten that the president will veto any legislation that doesn’t give immunity to the telecommunications companies. So if you believe their false assumption that the Intelligence Committee’s bill will save lives, then they are saying that giving a break to the telecommunications companies is more important than saving American lives.

“As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the Cato Institute noted, America is in no danger from the expiration of this unconstitutional law. Orders issued since last August remain in effect until their internal cease date, up to a year after issuance, ensuring that current surveillance programs will continue, in some cases, into 2009. These programmatic orders are not limited to individuals or facilities so that new targets can be tapped under existing orders. Of course, the government always has the option of tapping targets immediately and returning to court within 72 hours to obtain an order under the FISA procedures that have served our intelligence community well for nearly 30 years.

“Congress should take the time to craft a bill that gives the intelligence community only the narrow authority it needs to track terrorists abroad while protecting the privacy of people in the United States. It is critical that Congress does not repeat the mistakes made last August when it gave the executive branch the ability to conduct mass, untargeted surveillance, unconnected to suspected terrorists, with no limit on how American information can be used. The House of Representatives has already taken the first step towards restoring our rights by letting the Protect America Act sunset. It would be a travesty, if after making this courageous move, Congress ultimately decided to pass a bill that substantially replicated that overreaching authority.

“The government’s legitimate interest in protecting the nation against terrorism can be accommodated without sacrificing the constitutional liberties that make the United States worth defending.

“Any new surveillance law should give the government the tools it needs but also ensure that:

  • Government surveillance is subject to meaningful judicial oversight.
  • Government surveillance is directed at suspected terrorists, not at innocent people.
  • Government surveillance is targeted at individuals and does not constitute an indiscriminate dragnet.
  • Where government surveillance sweeps up the communications of innocent people, the information gathered is – except in a narrow and clearly defined category of contexts – destroyed rather than disseminated.
  • Congress should not deny Americans their day in court against the telecommunications companies to vindicate their rights. No immunity for the telecommunications providers.”

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