As expected, President Bush played the fear card in his State of the Union address last night. Once again, he’s trying to scare the public into thinking that come February 1, the phone lines will be burning up with terrorist-to-terrorist phone calls that our intelligence agencies won’t be able to listen to, because Senate Democrats want to debate FISA legislation instead of blindly accepting the White House’s demands:
To protect America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they’re planning. Last year, Congress passed legislation to help us do that. Unfortunately, Congress set the legislation to expire on February the 1st. That means if you don’t act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened and our citizens will be in greater danger. Congress must ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted. Congress must pass liability protection for companies believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend America.
The ACLU certainly agrees that U.S. intelligence agencies need the ability to listen to terrorists’ phone calls. And the secret FISA Court that authorizes wiretap warrants seems to agree: From 1979 through 2006, out of the 20,000-plus warrant requests that were submitted to the FISA Court, only five requests for warrants were rejected. It’s clear that the FISA laws weren’t impeding our ability to “track terrorist threats.” And, in case of an emergency request that can’t wait for a warrant, our intelligence agencies can start a wiretap and get it authorized later.
Bush insisted the “flow of vital intelligence” would be disrupted without an extension of the Protect America Act. But as we point out earlier, and it bears repeating, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senator John Rockefeller have noted that all current surveillance orders, including the ones authorized under the Protect America Act, can be extended into 2009 even if the PAA expires at midnight on February 1. Does that sound like disruption to you?
Finally, those telecoms and their “efforts to defend America.” Earlier this month, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine revealed that FBI wiretaps were cut off by the phone companies after the bureau neglected to pay the wiretapping bills. That sounds like the actions of companies more concerned with the bottom line than Americans’ safety from terrorist threats.
Bush’s so-called “Liability protection” is perhaps the worst, most cynical part of the administration’s proposed FISA “fix.” These “protections” would shield the very companies who broke the law from lawsuits that attempt to hold them accountable. By allowing immunity, Congress would close the courthouse doors to the Americans who Fourth Amendment rights have been violated. Congress is even floating the idea that would force the government to assume legal responsibility for the dozens of lawsuits against the telecoms.
This is all, of course, beyond the pale when compared to the knowledge that the Bush administration sought expanded wiretapping powers before 9/11. The President would have you believe that his administration has gone above and beyond to protect America after the attacks of 9/11, when, in fact, his administration was in the midst of an executive power grab months before the attacks.
We know the American public doesn’t believe the hype. We can only hope Congress is as smart.