Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Congress Pouts While Terrorists Plot

We are still without a new FISA law, passed by the Senate, but on hold by the House, as terrorists plot to destroy us. The eavesdropping techniques that intercepted and foiled the plot to blow up 10 jet airliners over the Atlantic Ocean are on hold as the Democrats in the House stall and pout. Their giant lobby of trial lawyers can't wait to sue the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the U.S. government to uncover Islamic terrorists, so the House keeps passing bills that do not include the immunity promised to these companies.

On the lower right of my website is a banner that allows quick and easy access to the e-mail address and telephone number of your representative. All you need to do is enter your zipcode. If your representative is a Democrat, please urge him or her to pass this bill with the immunity provisions intact.

'Any delay can be harmful'
March 25, 2008, Chicago Tribune

Last August, under the pressure of a looming vacation deadline, lawmakers passed what President Bush described as an urgent fix to the country's ability to secretly eavesdrop on suspected terrorists overseas. Many in Congress, particularly Democrats, feared the barrage of blame if they did nothing about the electronic surveillance law and terrorists attacked while lawmakers were working on their tans.

So they passed a temporary extension that expired in February, with the intention of permanently fixing the law before then.

Dream on.

In the intervening months, the Senate overwhelmingly passed an excellent bill to modernize the eavesdropping law. The president has urged Congress to send him that bill. But the House has balked. It passed its own version earlier this month. A major sticking point between the two: retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that helped the government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Senate bill grants the immunity; the House bill doesn't. The Senate's rationale: These companies were following patriotic impulses when they responded to pleas from the federal government. The House: The companies need to answer for any possible wrongdoing and they can't just blindly follow administration requests.

What's going on here? Well, for one thing, some Democratic House leaders are miffed at how the White House handled their requests for information about what the telecommunications companies did, at the government's behest, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Unlike some of their colleagues in the Senate, House leaders didn't get access to information before the vote in August, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a recent visit to the Tribune editorial board. That, said Hoyer, was "an unacceptable position for the House of Representatives to be put in by any administration. To be told if you cooperate with us, we'll show you the documents on which we make our claim. But if you don't cooperate with us, we're not."

House leaders wanted info, and all they got was attitude. That got them riled. Is their reaction understandable? Or is their petty jealousy unbecoming? You make the call.

But that was last summer.

Hoyer and others have now seen the paper trail on what the companies did after Sept. 11. He says those papers don't settle the issue of whether the phone companies followed the law. He questions whether the companies exercised "due diligence" when acceding to administration requests—the implication being that they may have broken the law unintentionally.

Still, he added: "I see no malice in the acts of the phone companies. They had nothing to gain. They had no profit to receive. They weren't going to get any kudos from anybody for doing this."

Our point—and the Senate's—exactly. Whatever the companies did, they did because they were asked.

All the haggling over the new law won't immediately interrupt already approved wiretapping cases against terror targets. But the longer it continues, the greater potential for disrupting America's ability to spy on terrorists.

In a separate visit to the Tribune editorial board, FBI Director Robert Mueller recently warned of a prolonged congressional fight over a new surveillance law. "With no bill out there, there is uncertainty. There is concern with the communication carriers as to the extent to which and circumstances under which they can help us. And any uncertainty and concern are disincentives to cooperate with us. Any delay can be harmful."

So let's not delay anymore. Pass a law, with immunity. In a time of crisis, these companies stepped up to cooperate. They did what their government asked. Don't open them to liability for that.

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