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Context of 'August 1-4, 2007: Protect America Act Sails through Congress'

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The Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007), an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA—see 1978), is introduced in Congress. With limited debate and no committee hearings, it passes both houses with substantial majorities. [US Senate, 8/5/2007; Boston Globe, 8/6/2007; House Judiciary Committee, 9/18/2007 pdf file] Congressional Democrats quickly capitulate on the bill, submitting to what the Washington Post later calls “a high-pressure campaign by the White House to change the nation’s wiretap law, in which the administration capitalized on Democrats’ fears of being branded weak on terrorism and on Congress’s desire to act on the issue before its August recess.” [Washington Post, 8/5/2007] Indeed, one Republican senator, Trent Lott, warns during the initial debate that lawmakers should pass the law quickly and get out of Washington before they could be killed in a terrorist attack (see August 2, 2007). McConnell tells the Senate, “Al-Qaeda is not going on vacation this month.” And Democrat Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), a supporter of the bill, told his colleagues: “We’re at war. The enemy wants to attack us. This is not the time to strive for legislative perfection.” [Slate, 8/6/2007]
Some Democrats Unhappy - One Democratic lawmaker responds angrily: “There are a lot of people who felt we had to pass something. It was tantamount to being railroaded.” Many House Democrats feel betrayed by the White House; Democratic leaders had reached what they believed was a deal on the bill with the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, only to have the White House throw out the deal and present a new list of conditions at the last minute. Both McConnell and the White House deny that any such deal was reached. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, says, “I think the White House didn’t want to take ‘yes’ for an answer from the Democrats.” Representative Jerrold Nadler (R-NY) says lawmakers were “stampeded by fear-mongering and deception” into voting for the bill. Fellow House Democrat Jane Harman (D-CA) warns that the PAA will lead to “potential unprecedented abuse of innocent Americans’ privacy.” [Washington Post, 8/5/2007] The ACLU’s Caroline Fredrickson has a succinct explanation of why the Democrats folded so quickly: “Whenever the president says the word terrorism, they roll over and play dead.” [Slate, 8/6/2007]
AT&T Whistleblower: Democratic Leadership Colluded in Passing PAA - AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009 and December 15-31, 2005) will later write that the Democrats played a far more active role in getting the PAA passed than others acknowledge. He will quote a 2008 column by liberal civil liberties advocate Glenn Greenwald, who will write: “[I]n 2006, when the Congress was controlled by [then-Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist [R-TN] and [then-House Speaker] Denny Hastert [R-IL], the administration tried to get a bill passed legalizing warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty, but was unable. They had to wait until the Congress was controlled by [House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer [D-MD], [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] to accomplish that.” According to Klein, once the Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007, they engaged in “pure theater, posturing as opponents of the illegal NSA program while seeking a way to protect the president.” The few principled Democrats to actively oppose the legislation, such as Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), were, Klein will write, “hamstrung by their own leadership.” The PAA passage was accompanied by refusals from the Democratic leaders of “the relevant Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, which were now led by Democrats such as [John D.] Rockefeller, [Dianne] Feinstein (see February 1-6, 2006), and [Patrick] Leahy in the Senate, and John Conyers and Sylvestre Reyes in the House,” who “quickly decided not to launch any serious investigations into the NSA spying.” Klein will later add that at the time of the PAA passage, he was unaware of how thoroughly Democrats had been briefed on the NSA program (see October 1, 2001, October 11, 2001, October 25, 2001 and November 14, 2001, July 17, 2003, and March 10, 2004), “and thus were in on the secret but took no action to stop it.” [Salon, 6/19/2008; Klein, 2009, pp. 86-87]

Entity Tags: Trent Lott, Mike McConnell, Protect America Act, Joseph Lieberman, Mitch McConnell, Jane Harman, Jerrold Nadler, Caroline Fredrickson, Bush administration (43), Jan Schakowsky, House Intelligence Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey pen a letter to Silvestre Reyes (D-TX, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, claiming that because the Democratically led Congress has allowed the Protect America Act (PAA) to expire (see February 16, 2008), the government is losing critically needed intelligence on potential terrorist threats. McConnell and Mukasey do not include any evidence of the claim in their letter. In the six days since the PAA expired, the two write, some of the government’s “partners” in intelligence operations—US telecommunications firms—have “reduced [their] cooperation” in the government’s warrantless wiretapping program. The two officials do not name which firms they say have cut back on their cooperation. The telecom firms are more reluctant to continue their cooperation with the government because they do not have retroactive legal immunity from civil and criminal charges for their cooperation in the past. The Bush administration and Congressional Republicans allowed the PAA to expire rather than approve an extension of the law that did not include an immunity clause (see February 23, 2008). In their letter, McConnell and Mukasey claim that since the Protect America Act lapsed, telecom firms “have delayed or refused compliance with our requests to initiate new surveillances of terrorist and other foreign intelligence targets under existing directives issued pursuant to the Protect America Act.” They add, “Although most partners intend to cooperate for the time being, they have expressed deep misgivings about doing so in light of the uncertainty and have indicated that they may well cease to cooperate if the uncertainty persists.” McConnell and Mukasey write that if Congress does not extend immunity to the telecom firms, the firms will continue to be reluctant to cooperate with the surveillance program: “This uncertainty may well continue to cause us to miss information that we otherwise would be collecting.” A day later, the two retract their claim (see February 23, 2008). Reyes and other Democrats have accused the administration of exaggerating the claims of threats to national security because of their refusal to grant the telecoms immunity; some have accused the administration of “fearmongering” and employing “scare tactics.” [Newsweek, 2/22/2008; Newsweek, 2/22/2008; Politico, 2/22/2008]
Democrats Take 'Strong Offense' to Charges - In a joint statement, Reyes, Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), and other Democrats respond to McConnell and Mukasey’s letter: “Further politicizing the debate, the administration today announced that they believe there have been gaps in security since the Protect America Act expired. They cannot have it both ways; if it is true that the expiration of the PAA has caused gaps in intelligence, then it was irresponsible for the president and congressional Republicans to openly oppose an extension of the law. Accordingly, they should join Democrats in extending it until we can resolve our differences.” [Newsweek, 2/22/2008] Reyes says: “President Bush has just been spoiled dealing with the Republican-controlled Congress before. I take strong offense at the president’s comments that somehow we’re less safe because the Protect America Act expired.” [Politico, 2/22/2008]
Republicans Refuse to Discuss Legislation - Democratic staffers in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees meet today to discuss how to iron out difference between the two chambers’ version of the proposed extension of the PAA; Republican aides refuse to attend. [Associated Press, 2/23/2008] Democrats also charge that, contrary to administration claims of wanting to work with Congress to pass an acceptable update to the law, the White House has refused to supply lawmakers with documents they have requested pertaining to the extension. [Politico, 2/22/2008]

Entity Tags: Mike McConnell, Protect America Act, House Intelligence Committee, Michael Mukasey, Bush administration (43), Silvestre Reyes, John D. Rockefeller

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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