Profile: Protect America Act
Protect America Act was a participant or observer in the following events:
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 ] 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
During the Senate debate over the controversial Protect America Act (see August 5, 2007), Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) says that the threat from terrorism is so dire, and so imminent, that lawmakers should pass the law and then get out of Washington as soon as they can to save their own lives. (Congress goes into recess in a few days.) Lott says that Congress needs to pass the PAA, otherwise, “the disaster could be on our doorstep.” He continues, “I think it would be good to leave town in August, and it would probably be good to stay out until September the 12th.” Lott provides no information about any predictions of an imminent terrorist attack on Washington or anywhere else. [Roll Call, 8/2/2007]
Congressional Democrats attempt to short-circuit the Protect America Act (see August 5, 2007) currently under debate. They introduce their own bill, the Improving Foreign Intelligence Surveillance to Defend the Nation and the Constitution Act, that would address the administration’s concerns that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act imposed unwieldy limitations on the NSA’s ability to electronically monitor foreign communications that were transmitted through communications networks inside the US. The Democrats’ bill redefines “electronic surveillance” to allow the NSA to monitor such communications without a FISA warrant if it “reasonably believes” the targets of those communications to be outside the US. This would give the NSA new surveillance powers, so the Democrats’ bill provides for oversight by the FISA Court, audits by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, and restrictions on domestic surveillance. However, the Bush administration does not want the bill to become law. President Bush announces that he opposes the bill, and threatens to hold Congress in session past its August adjournment date until he can get the Protect America Act passed. The Democrats’ bill dies before ever coming up for a full vote in Congress. [US House of Representatives, 8/3/2007 ; Slate, 8/6/2007]
The Center for National Security Studies (CNSS) issues a warning about the Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007). The PAA lets the NSA conduct warrantless surveillance against US citizens “without any meaningful judicial oversight,” the CNSS writes, and gives the NSA almost unlimited access to almost all international communications that originate in, pass through, or terminate with a US citizen, again without oversight. According to the CNSS, the administration refused to countenance any suggestion that the NSA should be restricted to focusing on foreigners, terrorist targets, or conducting surveillance that could be construed as necessary to national security, as well as refusing to allow any meaningful judicial or Congressional oversight. [Center for National Security Studies, 8/5/2007]
Mitch McConnell. [Source: US Senate]President Bush signs the controversial Protect America Act (PAA) into law. The bill, which drastically modifies the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 (see 1978), was sponsored by two Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Christopher Bond (R-MO), but written by the Bush administration’s intelligence advisers. [US Senate, 8/5/2007; Washington Post, 8/5/2007] It passed both houses of Congress with little debate and no hearings (see August 1-4, 2007). “This more or less legalizes the NSA [domestic surveillance] program,” says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies. [New York Times, 8/6/2007] Slate’s Patrick Radden Keefe adds ominously, “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is now dead, and it’s never coming back.” [Slate, 8/6/2007] The PAA expires in six months, the only real concession Congressional Democrats were able to secure. Though the Bush administration and its allies in Congress insist that the law gives the government “the essential tools it needs” to conduct necessary surveillance of foreign-based terrorists while protecting Americans’ civil liberties, many Democrats and civil liberties organizations say the bill allows the government to wiretap US residents in communication with overseas parties without judiciary or Congressional oversight. Bush calls the bill “a temporary, narrowly focused statute to deal with the most immediate shortcomings in the law” that needs to be expanded and made permanent by subsequent legislation. The administration says that the lack of judiciary oversight in the new law will be adequately covered by “internal bureaucratic controls” at the National Security Agency. [Associated Press, 8/5/2007; Washington Post, 8/5/2007]
Reining in FISA - The PAA allows FISA to return “to its original focus on protecting the rights of Americans, while not acting as an obstacle to conducting foreign intelligence surveillance on foreign targets located overseas.” Before the PAA, the White House says, FISA created unnecessary obstacles in allowing US intelligence to “gain real-time information about the intent of our enemies overseas,” and “diverted scarce resources that would be better spent safeguarding the civil liberties of people in the United States, not foreign terrorists who wish to do us harm.” The PAA no longer requires the government to obtain FISA warrants to monitor “foreign intelligence targets located in foreign countries” who are contacting, or being contacted by, US citizens inside US borders. FISA will continue to review the procedures used by US intelligence officials in monitoring US citizens and foreign contacts by having the attorney general inform the FISA Court of the procedures used by the intelligence community to determine surveillance targets are outside the United States.”
Allows Third Parties to Assist in Surveillance, Grants Immunity - The PAA also allows the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to secure the cooperation of “third parties,” particularly telecommunications firms and phone carriers, to “provide the information, facilities, and assistance necessary to conduct surveillance of foreign intelligence targets located overseas.” It provides these firms with immunity from any civil lawsuits engendered by such cooperation.
Short Term Legislation - The White House says that Congress must pass further legislation to give telecommunications firms permanent and retroactive immunity against civil lawsuits arising from their cooperation with the government’s domestic surveillance program. [White House, 8/6/2006]
Temporary Suspension of the Constitution? - Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, says: “I’m not comfortable suspending the Constitution even temporarily. The countries we detest around the world are the ones that spy on their own people. Usually they say they do it for the sake of public safety and security.” [Washington Post, 8/5/2007]
Entity Tags: Christopher (“Kit”) Bond, National Security Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Mitch McConnell, Al-Qaeda, Terrorist Surveillance Program, Kate Martin, Patrick Radden Keefe, Rush Holt, Protect America Act
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The American Civil Liberties Union registers bitter disapproval of the newly passed Protect America Act (see August 5, 2007), which it disparagingly labels the “Police America Act.” It writes: “[The act] allows for massive, untargeted collection of international communications without court order or meaningful oversight by either Congress or the courts. It contains virtually no protections for the US end of the phone call or email, leaving decisions about the collection, mining and use of Americans’ private communications up to this administration.” The Attorney General can issue warrants for domestic surveillance of international communications without court review, and can order surveillance of people outside of the US for a year, all without any review by the FISA Court. The PAA “cut[s FISA] out of the process, leaving the executive branch unchecked.” Any telephone or e-mail communications from US citizens “caught up in the dragnet” can be examined at the government’s leisure, the ACLU says, without any privacy considerations or respect for Constitutional rights. The law leaves “the administration to decide how to collect, store, datamine and use Americans’ private communications.” The ACLU says that the court review provisions of the PAA are a sham. The Attorney General need not explain how US citizens’ communications are handled once they are intercepted. The FISA Court “will have no information about how extensive the breach of American privacy is, nor the authority to remedy it.” The provisions for Congressional oversight are equally meaningless, the ACLU says, because the Attorney General is not required to disclose any information about what domestic communications the government has intercepted or what is being done with those intercepts. [American Civil Liberties Union, 8/7/2007]
Ryan Singel. [Source: Wired]According to Ryan Singel of Wired, the new Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007) gives the Bush administration “the power to order the nation’s communication service providers—which range from Gmail, AOL IM, Twitter, Skype, traditional phone companies, ISPs, internet backbone providers, Federal Express, and social networks—to create possibly permanent spying outposts for the federal government.” He adds: “These outposts need only to have a ‘significant’ purpose of spying on foreigners, would be nearly immune to challenge by lawsuit, and have no court supervision over their extent or implementation. Abuses of the outposts will be monitored only by the Justice Department, which has already been found to have underreported abuses of other surveillance powers to Congress.” In addition, Singel says the PAA redefines any monitoring of US citizens’ telephone and Internet communications “reasonably believed” to be outside the country as not surveillance, allows telecommunications firms to target both foreign and domestic parties for surveillance, and forces those firms to give assistance in secret, without informing Congress or the targeted parties. [Wired News, 8/6/2007]
Aziz Huq. [Source: American Prospect]Aziz Huq, an author and the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, writes that the Protect America Act (PAA-see August 5, 2007) came about as a result of what he calls “the most recent example of the national security waltz, a three-step administration maneuver for taking defeat and turning it into victory.” Step one is a court defeat for the administration, for example regarding detainees at Guantanamo (see June 28, 2004), or the overruling of military commissions in 2006 (see June 30, 2006). The second step, which comes weeks or months later, is an announcement that the ruling has created a security crisis and must be “remedied” through immediate legislation. The third and final step is the administration pushing legislation through Congress, such as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005) or the Military Commissions Act, that, Huq writes, “not only undoes the good court decision but also inflicts substantial damage to the infrastructure of accountability.”
Step One: FISC Refuses to Approve NSA's Surveillance Program - In January 2007, the administration announced that it was submitting the NSA’s domestic surveillance program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret court that issues FISA warrants for surveillance (see May 1, 2007). This was due to pending court cases threatening to rule the program in violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment; the administration wanted to forestall, or at least sidestep, those upcoming rulings. In June, FISC refused to approve parts of the NSA program that involved monitoring overseas communications that passed through US telecom switches. Since a tremendous amount of overseas communications are routed through US networks, this ruling jeopardized the NSA’s previous ability to wiretap such communications virtually at will without a warrant. The administration objected to the NSA having to secure such warrants.
Step Two: The Drumbeat Begins - Months later, the drumbeat for new legislation to give the NSA untrammeled rights to monitor “overseas” communications, which not only traveled through US networks, but often began or ended with US citizens, began with appearances in the right-wing media by administration supporters, where they insisted that the FISC ruling was seriously hampering the NSA’s ability to garner much-needed intelligence on terrorist plots against the US. The White House and Congressional Republicans drafted legislation giving the NSA what it wanted, and presented it during the last week of the Congressional session, minimizing the time needed for scrutiny of the legislation as well as reducing the time available for meaningful debate.
Step Three: Passing a Law With Hidden Teeth - The legislation that would become the Protect America Act was carefully written by Bush officials, and would go much farther than giving the NSA the leeway it needed to wiretap US citizens. Instead, as Huq writes, “the Protect America Act is a dramatic, across-the-board expansion of government authority to collect information without judicial oversight.” Democrats believed they had negotiated a deal with the administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, to limit the law to addressing foreign surveillance wiretaps, but, Huq writes, “the White House torpedoed that deal and won a far broader law.” The law removes any real accountability over domestic surveillance by either Congress or the judiciary. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that the PAA provides “unlimited access to currently protected personal information that is already accessible through an oversight procedure.” The law is part of the administration’s continual attempts to “eviscerat[e]” the checks and balances that form the foundation of US democracy.
Ramifications - The law includes the provision that warrantless surveillance can be “directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.” Huq writes that this is a tremendously broad and vague standard that allows “freewheeling surveillance of Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” He adds: “The problem lies in the words ‘directed at.’ Under this language, the NSA could decide to ‘direct’ its surveillance at Peshawar, Pakistan—and seize all US calls going to and from there.… Simply put, the law is an open-ended invitation to collect Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” The law does not impose any restrictions on the reason for surveillance. National security concerns are no longer the standard for implementing surveillance of communications. And the phrase “reasonably believe” is uncertain. The provisions for oversight are, Huq writes, “risibly weak.” Surveillance need only be explained by presentations by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to FISC, which has little room to invalidate any surveillance, and furthermore will not be informed of any specific cases of surveillance. As for Congress, the Attorney General only need inform that body of “incidents of noncompliance” as reported by the administration. Congress must rely on the administration to police itself; it cannot demand particulars or examine documentation for itself. The law expires in six months, but, Huq notes, that deadline comes up in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, with all the pressures that entails. And the law allows “the NSA to continue wielding its new surveillance powers for up to a year afterward.” The law, Huq writes, “does not enhance security-related surveillance powers. Rather, it allows the government to spy when there is no security justification. And it abandons all but the pretense of oversight.” [Nation, 8/7/2007]
Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean considers the newly passed Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007) a dire threat to American civil liberties. Dean writes that the ire of rank-and-file Democrats with their Congressional leadership is well earned, that the Democrats meekly lined up and voted it into law after some pro forma protestations. Dean notes that editorialists from around the country, and organizations as politically disparate as the ACLU (see August 6, 2007), the Cato Institute, and the John Birch Society (see March 10, 1961 and December 2011) all agree that the new law is a serious threat to civil liberties. They all agree that the law violates the Fourth Amendment while at the same time hides its operations under the rubric of national security secrecy. Dean notes, “Congress was not even certain about the full extent of what it has authorized because President Bush and Vice President Cheney refused to reveal it.”
Executive Power Grab - Dean writes that as much of a threat as the PAA is to citizens’ privacy, it is more threatening because it is another step in the Bush administration’s push for enhancing the powers of the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judiciary branches, a move towards a so-called “unitary executive.” Bush and Cheney have worked relentlessly “to weaken or eliminate all checks and balances constraining the executive,” Dean writes, pointing to “countless laws enacted by the Republican-controlled Congresses during the first six years of the administration, and in countless signing statements added by the president interpreting away any constraints on the Executive.” The new law “utterly fails to maintain any real check on the president’s power to undertake electronic surveillance of literally millions of Americans. This is an invitation to abuse, especially for a president like the current incumbent.”
Repairing the Damage - Dean is guardedly optimistic about the Democrats’ stated intentions to craft a new law that will supersede the PAA, which expires in February 2008, and restore some of the protections the PAA voids. Any such legislation may be quickly challenged by the Bush administration, which wants retroactive legislative immunity from prosecution for both US telecommunications firms cooperating with the government in monitoring Americans’ communications, and for government officials who may have violated the law in implementing domestic surveillance. Dean writes: “[B]efore Congress caved and gave Bush power to conduct this surveillance, he and telecommunication companies simply opted to do so illegally. Now, Bush will claim, with some justification, that because Congress has now made legal actions that were previously illegal, it should retroactively clear up this nasty problem facing all those who broke the law at his command.” Dean writes that Democrats need only do one thing to “fix [this] dangerous law: [add] meaningful accountability.” He continues: “They must do so, or face the consequences. No one wants to deny the intelligence community all the tools it needs. But regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, no Congress should trust any president with unbridled powers of surveillance over Americans. It is not the way our system is supposed to work.” [FindLaw, 8/10/2007]
Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, writes an op-ed for the New York Times pushing for Congressional immunity for US telecommunications firms over their cooperation with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Under August’s Protect America Act, McConnell writes, the country is “safer” from terrorist attacks while the privacy of US citizens is protected (see August 5, 2007). The government has “greater understanding of international [al-]Qaeda networks, and the law has allowed us to obtain significant insight into terrorist planning.” But the Act expires in two months, and McConnell wants it re-enacted and significantly expanded “if we are to stay ahead of terrorists who are determined to attack the United States.” Echoing the arguments of Bush administration officials, McConnell attacks the “outdated” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as significantly hindering the government’s “ability to collect timely foreign intelligence.” McConnell complains: “Our experts were diverted from tracking foreign threats to writing lengthy justifications to collect information from a person in a foreign country, simply to satisfy an outdated statute that did not reflect the ways our adversaries communicate. The judicial process intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans was applied instead to foreign intelligence targets in foreign countries. This made little sense, and the Protect America Act eliminated this problem.” McConnell calls for new legislation that would obviate the need for intelligence agencies such as the NSA to seek warrants to monitor US citizens’ telephone and e-mail communications: “The intelligence community should spend its time protecting our nation, not providing privacy protections to foreign terrorists and other diffuse international threats.” He also calls for retroactive immunity for “private parties”—i.e. the US telecommunications companies—that are subject to lawsuits over their cooperation with the NSA in monitoring US communications. “The intelligence community cannot go it alone,” he writes. “Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits.” Two days later, new Attorney General Michael Mukasey will write a virtually identical op-ed for the Los Angeles Times (see December 12, 2007). [New York Times, 12/10/2007]
Admiral Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, admits during a radio interview that the main issue over the renewal of the Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007) is not the security and safety of the nation, but the need to extend liability immunity to the nation’s telecommunications firms. In recent days, President Bush has said that unnamed terrorists are planning attacks on the US that will make 9/11 “pale by comparison,” and the only way to stop those attacks is to renew the PAA with new provisions that will grant telecommunications firms such as BellSouth, Verizon, and AT&T retroactive immunity from prosecution. Those firms are accused of illegally aiding the government in electronically monitoring the telephone and e-mail conversations of US citizens (see February 5, 2006). The PAA expires on February 16, but the government can operate under its provisions for another year. McConnell tells a National Public Radio reporter that the biggest issue surrounding the legislation is liability protection for the telecom firms. “We can’t do this mission without their help,” he says. “Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They’re being sued for billions of dollars.” They did not break the law, McConnell asserts, but the lawsuits are curtailing their willingness to cooperate with the government. “The Senate committee that passed the bill examined the activities of the telecom companies and concluded they were not violating the law,” he says. By not extending retroactive immunity, McConnell says, “we’d lose the capability to protect the country.” [National Public Radio, 2/15/2008] Two days later, McConnell echoes his unusually frank admission. Interviewed on Fox News, he says: “Let me make one other point just—very important. The entire issue here is liability protection for the carriers. And so the old law and extended law are an expired law if we don’t have retroactive liability protection for the carriers. They are less inclined to help us, and so their support.… And therefore, we do not have the agility and the speed that we had before to be able to move and try to capture [terrorists’] communications to thwart their planning.” He also implies that the argument against granting immunity—if the telecoms’ actions were legal in the first place then they wouldn’t need immunity—is valid. Interviewer Chris Wallace says: “Isn’t the central issue here that you’ve lost your power to compel telecommunications companies to cooperate with you and also your ability to offer them legal immunity? Again, the Democrats would say, ‘Look, if the cooperation is legal, they don’t need legal immunity.’” McConnell replies: “Exactly right. The issue now is there’s uncertainty because the law has expired and the law of August, the Protect America Act, allowed us to compel—compel—support from a private carrier. That’s now expired.… [T]he private sector, although willingly helped us [sic] in the past, are now saying, ‘You can’t protect me. Why should I help you?’” Interestingly, after all of the talk of imminent terror attacks, when Wallace asks, “Do you believe al-Qaeda is more of a threat now than any time since 9/11?” McConnell says flatly: “No. Following 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leadership and operatives were degraded probably two-thirds or three-quarters.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) responds that the administration’s attempt to tie the renewal of the PAA into the threat of future terrorist attacks is “wrong, divisive and nothing but fear-mongering.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) adds that McConnell’s “latest comments show yet again the shamelessness of the administration’s tactics.” [Fox News, 2/17/2008]
The Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007) expires today. Congress has refused to pass a reauthorization of the legislation that contains a provision to grant retroactive immunity to US telecommunications firms to protect them from lawsuits arising from their previous cooperation with government eavesdroppers (see February 5, 2006). President Bush has warned for days that by refusing to reauthorize the bill, Congress is leaving the US “more in danger of attack.” The surveillance elements of the PAA will continue in force for another year after its passage even as the PAA itself expires, so the government’s capability to use electronic surveillance against suspected terrorists and citizens alike continues unabated through August 2008.
Republican Reaction - House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) warns, “This is a grave problem, and the Democrat leaders ought to be held accountable for their inaction.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says, “The companies have been waiting for six months for retroactive liability” protection. “They are under pressure from their directors, pressure from their shareholders, and you’re jeopardizing the entire existence of the company by continuing to do this.”
Democratic Reaction - But House Democrats seem to be in no mood to give in to Bush’s rhetoric. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says Bush is “misrepresenting the facts on our nation’s electronic-surveillance capabilities.” “There is no risk the program will go dark,” says Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Many Democrats accuse the administration of putting the interests of telecom firms over national security—accusations that intensify after Bush’s Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, admitted that the real issue behind the reauthorization is the immunity for telecoms (see February 15-17, 2008). Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) says that the entire argument is “nothing more than a scare tactic designed to avoid legal and political accountability and keep Americans in the dark about the administration’s massive lawbreaking.” House member Tim Walz (D-MN) says, “Coming from a military background, I sure don’t downplay that there are threats out there, but the president’s demagoguery on this is the equivalent of the boy crying wolf.” And Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), the head of the House Democratic Caucus, says bluntly: “This is not about protecting Americans. The president just wants to protect American telephone companies.”
Previous Depiction - When the law was signed into effect August 5, 2007, it was portrayed by the White House as “a temporary, narrowly focused statute to deal with the most immediate needs of the intelligence community to protect the country.” Now it is being portrayed by Bush officials as the cornerstone of the nation’s terrorist-surveillance program. The issue is sure to resurface when Congress returns from a week-long break in late February. [Associated Press, 2/14/2008; Washington Post, 2/16/2008]
With the Protect America Act expiring amid warnings of imminent terror attacks from Bush administration officials and Congressional Republicans (see February 16, 2008 and February 15-17, 2008), most experts outside the administration say its expiration will have little effect on national security. Under the PAA, the government could wiretap domestic phones and computer systems without a warrant, but the legislation was considered a temporary stopgap measure to give Congress and the White House a chance to work together to create new, permanent regulations covering domestic surveillance. The government’s domestic wiretapping program now reverts to the procedures followed for 30 years under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires warrants from the FISA Court to engage in surveillance inside the US. Despite administration claims that the paperwork for those warrants is too cumbersome, many experts say that FISA gives the government the tools it needs to spy on terrorists. Timothy Lee from the conservative Cato Institute recalls that the last time FISA was revamped, after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush praised the overhaul, saying it “recognizes the realities and dangers posed by the modern terrorist.” Lee observes: “Those are the rules we’ll be living under after the Protect America Act expires this weekend. There’s no reason to think our nation will be in any more danger in 2008 than it was in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, or 2006.” Ben Wittes of the centrist Brookings Institution says that because existing warrantless surveillance begun under the temporary laws could continue for up to a year, the “sky is not falling at all.” Wittes says he is “somewhat bewildered by the apocalyptic rhetoric” of the Bush administration. Many experts note that emergency FISA warrants can, and have, been granted in a matter of minutes, and government eavesdroppers have up to three days to wiretap a phone or computer and then retroactively acquire a warrant. But administration officials have a different view. White House press secretary Dana Perino says the PAA’s expiration “will harm our ability to conduct surveillance to detect new threats to our security, including the locations, intentions and capabilities of terrorists and other foreign intelligence targets abroad.” Perino says that the PAA “temporarily closed” a “dangerous intelligence gap.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) calls that warning “categorically false.” Hoyer continues: “In fact, a wide range of national security experts has made clear that the president and our intelligence community have all the tools they need to protect our nation, if the Protect America Act—temporary legislation passed last August—expires.… We believe the president’s rhetoric is inaccurate and divisive, and an attempt to stampede the House of Representatives to rubber-stamp legislation by stoking the fears of the American people. We will not be stampeded.” [Washington Times, 2/16/2008]
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]
The Bush administration says all major US telecommunications firms have agreed to cooperate “for the time being” with US intelligence agencies’ wiretapping, regardless of the recent expiration of the Protect America Act (PAA) (see February 16, 2008). According to a joint statement from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wiretaps will resume under the current law “at least for now.” The statement says in part, “Although our private partners are cooperating for the time being, they have expressed understandable misgivings about doing so in light of the ongoing uncertainty and have indicated they may well discontinue cooperation if the uncertainty persists.” Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said earlier that intelligence agencies have missed critical intelligence because of the expiration of the PAA, a claim they retracted hours later (see February 23, 2008). [Reuters, 2/23/2008]
A day after the director of national intelligence and the attorney general warned that the government is losing critical intelligence on terrorist activities because Congress had not reauthorized the Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007), the same two officials now admit that the government is receiving the same intelligence as it did before the PAA expired (see February 16, 2008 and February 22, 2008). Mike McConnell and Michael Mukasey now admit that the nation’s telecommunications firms are still cooperating with the government’s warrantless wiretapping program. “We learned last night after sending [the original] letter that… new surveillances under existing directives issued pursuant to the Protect America Act will resume, at least for now,” Mukasey and McConnell say in a statement. “We appreciate the willingness of our private partners to cooperate despite the uncertainty.” But in the same letter, McConnell and Mukasey contradict themselves, saying, “Unfortunately, the delay resulting from this discussion impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information.” No one in the White House will give specifics of what intelligence data may have been missed, or how serious it may have been. A Democratic Congressional official says he is skeptical that anything was missed because the law permits continued monitoring of terrorists and their associates regardless of the PAA’s expiration. “This is serious backpedaling by the DNI,” the Democratic official says of McConnell. “He’s been saying for the last week that the sky is falling, and the sky is not falling.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s Caroline Fredrickson, whose organization is suing a number of telecoms for information about the government’s warrantless wiretapping program, says, “In an attempt to get sweeping powers to wiretap without warrants, Republicans are playing politics with domestic surveillance legislation.” [Los Angeles Times, 2/24/2008]
President Bush again demands that Congress reinstate the Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007), with new provisions providing the nation’s telecommunications industry retroactive legal immunity from criminal and civil prosecution for possible crimes committed in the administration’s domestic wiretapping program (see May 12, 2006). Bush says that without such immunity, US telecom firms will be reluctant to help the administration spy on potential terrorists. The PAA is a central part of the legislative update of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (see 1978) which mandates that any wiretaps must receive the approval of the FISA Court. Bush insists that he will veto an update to FISA without the immunity provisions, even as he asserts the country is at risk of further terrorist attacks without the FISA updates, and after letting the PAA lapse without signing an extension of the legislation into law. However, Bush blames Congress for not passing the FISA update with an immunity clause: “Congress’ failure to pass this legislation was irresponsible,” he says. “In other words, the House’s refusal to act is undermining our ability to get cooperation from private companies. And that undermines our efforts to protect us from terrorist attack.” He explains why the Democrats don’t want his bill: “House leaders are blocking this legislation, and the reason can be summed up in three words: class action lawsuits.” A spokesman for Congressional Democrats retorts: “They cannot have it both ways. If it is true that the expiration of the [surveillance law] has caused gaps in intelligence, then it was irresponsible for the president and Congressional Republicans to openly oppose an extension of the law.”
Democrats Put Trial Lawyers Before National Security? - Bush says: “The Senate bill would prevent plaintiffs’ attorneys from suing companies believed to have helped defend America after the 9/11 attacks. More than 40 of these lawsuits have been filed, seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in damages from these companies.… It is unfair and unjust to threaten these companies with financial ruin only because they are believed to have done the right thing and helped their country.” The lawsuits (see June 26, 2006) seek damages based upon violations of FISA, the Wiretap Act, the Communications Act, and the Stored Communications Act, among other laws. Bob Edgar of Common Cause says neither money nor punishment is the issue: “Innocent Americans who have had their rights violated by the telecoms deserve their day in court. If these companies did nothing wrong, then they have nothing to fear.” Bush is apparently attempting to refocus the issue as an attack on trial lawyers—traditionally a group supportive of Democrats—in saying: “Members of the House have a choice to make: They can empower the trial bar—or they can empower the intelligence community. They can help class action trial lawyers sue for billions of dollars—or they can help our intelligence officials protect millions of lives. They can put our national security in the hands of plaintiffs’ lawyers—or they can entrust it to the men and women of our government who work day and night to keep us safe.” House member John Conyers (D-MI) calls such characterizations “irresponsible” and “inaccurate.” [CBS News, 2/23/2008]
Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) pens a blistering op-ed for the conservative National Review that accuses House Democrats of allowing the Protect America Act to expire (PAA—see February 16, 2008) and thereby endangering the country by leaving it unprotected against terrorist attacks. This is the same argument President Bush and Republicans have advanced in recent days in favor of continued warrantless wiretapping (see February 23, 2008). Hoekstra calls the Democrats’ action “unprecedented irresponsibility.” The “burdensome paperwork, government lawyers, and court orders” that implementing wiretaps will now engender, Hoekstra writes, “could mean the difference in stopping a terrorist plot or saving the life of an American soldier.” Hoekstra quickly turns to another key agenda for reauthorizing the PAA—providing retroactive immunity from lawsuits for American telecommunications firms. He echoes the arguments of Bush and other officials such as Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell (see February 22, 2008) by writing that without such immunity, “these companies obviously will be reluctant to cooperate with the government in the future.” But Hoekstra takes the argument even farther, equating the Democrats’ refusal to reauthorize the PAA with their support from trial lawyers, who “have contributed more $1.5 million to Democrat coffers.” He then says that US intelligence agents will suffer because, he asserts, “many of [them] have been forced to take out professional liability insurance to protect them from the actions of the Democratic Congress.” Hoekstra claims that Democrats consistently favor working to investigate global warming over protecting the nation. [National Review, 2/25/2008] Hoekstra continues the attack the next day with a piece in the Wall Street Journal co-authored with his House colleague Lamar Smith (R-TX) and his Senate colleague Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO). The three open this column with the rhetorical question, “Are Americans as safe today as they were before Congress allowed the Protect America Act to expire on Feb. 16?” and answer it with much the same arguments that Hoekstra advanced the day before. “We are less safe today and will remain so until Congress clears up the legal uncertainty for companies that assist in collecting intelligence for the government—and until it gives explicit permission to our intelligence agencies to intercept, without a warrant, foreign communications that pass through the US,” they claim. They also echo the claim asserted by McConnell and Mukasey that the nation’s intelligence community has lost valuable intelligence because of the lapse in legislation—without acknowledging that McConnell and Mukasey withdrew that claim within hours (see February 23, 2008). [Wall Street Journal, 2/26/2008]
President Bush signs the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), a revamping and expansion of the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). The legislation passed the House by a sweeping 293 to 129 votes, with most Democratic Congressional leaders supporting it over the opposition of the more liberal and civil liberties-minded Democrats. Republicans were almost unanimously supportive of the bill. Though Democratic Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) managed to delay the bill’s passage through the Senate, their attempt to modify the bill was thwarted by a 66-32 margin. (Dodd credits AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009) as one of the very few people to make the public aware of the illegal NSA wiretapping program, which the FISA amendment would protect. Without Klein, Dodd states, “this story might have remained secret for years and years, causing further erosion of our rights.”) Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, gave his qualified support to the bill, stating: “Given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as president, I will carefully monitor the program.” Obama had opposed an earlier Senate version that would have given “blanket immunity” to the telecommunications companies for their participation in the illegal NSA wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who organized Democratic support for the bill in the House, said that she supported the bill primarily because it rejects Bush’s argument that a wartime chief executive has the “inherent authority” to conduct some surveillance activity he considers necessary to fight terrorism. It restores the legal notion that the FISA law is the exclusive rule on government spying, she said, and added: “This is a democracy. It is not a monarchy.” Feingold, however, said that the bill granted “retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that may have engaged in President Bush’s illegal wiretapping program.” The amendments restore many of the provisions of the expired Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007) that drastically modify the original FISA legislation and grant the government broad new surveillance powers. Like the PAA, the FAA grants “third parties” such as telecommunications firms immunity from prosecution for engaging in illegal surveillance of American citizens if they did so in partnership with government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA). [Washington Post, 6/20/2008; CNN, 6/26/2008; US Senate, 7/9/2008; White House, 7/10/2008; Klein, 2009, pp. 95-97] Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) actually refused to honor a “hold” placed on the bill by Dodd, a highly unusual move. Klein will later note that Reid has in the past always honored holds placed on legislation by Republicans, even if Democrats were strongly supportive of the legislation being “held.” Klein will write that Pelosi crafted a “showpiece” FISA bill without the immunity provisions, garnering much praise for her from civil liberties organizations; however, Pelosi’s colleague House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) had secretly worked with the White House to craft a bill that preserved immunity for telecoms, and on June 10, Pelosi “rammed” that bill through the House. The final bill actually requires the judiciary to dismiss lawsuits brought against telecom firms if those firms can produce evidence that they had worked in collusion with the NSA. Feingold later observes that the final bill is not a “compromise, it is a capitulation.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 101-103] Klein will write that Democrats and Republicans have worked together to “unw[ind] one of the main reforms of the post-Watergate era and accepted the outrageous criminal rationalizations of [President] Nixon himself.” Klein will quote Nixon as saying, “If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” (see April 6, 1977), and will say that is “the essence of the FISA ‘compromise’” and turned Congress into the White House’s “rubber stamp.… It is the twisted judicial logic of a dictatorship.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 107]
Entity Tags: Nancy Pelosi, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA Amendments Act of 2008, Christopher Dodd, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Mark Klein, Russell D. Feingold, Richard M. Nixon, Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, National Security Agency, Protect America Act
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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