MCLU Denounces Senate Vote to Expand Warrantless Surveillance

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
February 12, 2008 12:00 am

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Senators Collins and Snowe Cave to Bush Administration

PORTLAND- The MCLU expressed strong disappointment with Maine’s two Senators after they backed the Bush Administration’s extension of a law that would vastly expand the government’s ability to spy on Americans without a warrant. The Senate bill, which passed on Tuesday in a 68-29 vote with both Maine’s Senators voting in favor, would extend the government’s power to bypass the safeguards that have been part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, (FISA), which was enacted after the Watergate scandal to provide a court check on government surveillance. Several amendments that would have safeguarded civil liberties were defeated as was an amendment that would have stripped telecom immunity from the bill. Telecom immunity could possibly bring to a close the Maine Public Utilities Commission inquiry into whether Verizon violated Mainers’ privacy by collaborating with the National Security Agency.

“Sadly, it seems that both Senators Snowe and Collins were snowed by the President’s campaign of fear and intimidation,” said Bellows. “They and their Senate counterparts on both sides of the aisle gave in to the Bush Administration, handing the government a blank check to spy on Americans without a warrant.”

The debate over the bill, which began last week, included admission by top intelligence officials that they have been using the present authority to spy on Americans. The government had first claimed they were only tracking overseas communications that were being routed through the United States. We now know that this is not the full extent of the warrantless surveillance.

“We do not need to throw the Constitution out the window in order to be secure,” said Bellows. “Spying on all Americans rather than those individuals suspected of actual criminal or terrorist activity does nothing to make us safer, but it does make us less free.”

President Bush had threatened to veto the bill, which was an extension of a law passed soon after 9/11 strengthening government surveillance powers, if it did not contain a highly controversial provision to grant immunity from lawsuits to the giant telecommunication companies, which have handed over their customers’ private information to the government in likely violation of the law. Many observers found it oddly ironic that although President Bush claimed that the nation’s defense would be weakened if the spying bill did not pass, he was willing to veto the bill if it did not grant immunity to the telecom companies. The MCLU, which along with its national organization, ACLU, has led the opposition to this deeply flawed bill, believes that the existing rules under the FISA law are sufficient for the government to conduct necessary surveillance, even allowing emergency wiretapping that can be reviewed later by the specially designated FISA court. Many security experts agree, including Richard Clarke, a former national security official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and who has spoken out against the new legislation, and denounced the fear-mongering tactics of the President he formerly served.

While the House passed a version of the same legislation without telecom immunity earlier last fall, it now appears that the House may take up new legislation to expand the government’s domestic surveillance powers as early as Thursday. The Senate version and the House version would then be reconciled in conference committee, going back to the full House and Senate for final passage.

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