ACLU Says No Deal on an Unconstitutional FISA Compromise

June 5, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – As news continues to trickle down from Capitol Hill regarding a deal on surveillance legislation, the American Civil Liberties Union once again voiced its fervent opposition to any attempt to undercut the Fourth Amendment or allow the telecommunications companies to gain blanket immunity for illegal spying. Before the Memorial Day recess the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) floated what he claims is a compromise on surveillance legislation that will allow for sham court proceedings, virtually guaranteeing immunity to telecommunications companies. The ACLU strongly opposes this unconstitutional proposal.

“Congress should remember that the majority of Americans are against unwarranted and warrantless surveillance,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “They are against slamming the courthouse doors and letting the phone companies off the hook for selling out their privacy. If that’s where most Americans stand, who exactly is Congress representing?”

In a troubling recent report, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) was quoted as saying he was “fine” with Senator Bond’s surveillance proposal and immunity provision, and wanted to “get on with” FISA legislation. If true, it is a disappointing turn from someone who once said, “As someone who has been briefed on our most sensitive intelligence programs, I can see no argument why the future security of our country depends on whether past actions of telecommunications companies are immunized.”

“Bond’s immunity provision, at its heart, is saying it’s okay to break the law if the president tells you it’s okay,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “It would allow telecom companies to walk into a secret court, present a piece of paper – legally binding or not – and walk out without consequences. What kind of justice takes place entirely behind closed doors, is hinged entirely on a note from the president and revolves around the interpretation of the law and not the law itself? Where is our system of checks and balances in this scenario?”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has been leading his own negotiations with the White House – without Senator Bond – and according to The Hill newspaper is “expecting a deal soon.” Whatever deal emerges from these negotiations will most certainly be unconstitutional. The ACLU’s annual membership conference is gathering in Washington, DC early next week and will be storming the Hill asking members these questions: Will Rep. Hoyer negotiate a bad deal with Bush, Bond and Rockefeller and then vote against it? Will leadership allow the unconstitutional proposal on the floor for a vote? Will leadership cynically engineer a vote to let progressives — likely including Majority Leader Pelosi, House Majority Leader Hoyer and other leaders — vote no and have cover?

“For a body that stood so firm against pressure from the Senate and White House earlier this year, it would be a shame to see it fold now in the absence of any real threat or deadline,” said Fredrickson. “Being so close to electing a new administration, handing this president a parting gift of expansive spying abilities and legal immunity for his friends would be a massive mistake and would set an unforgivable precedent.”

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